Pairing Books & Bottles, Organizing Wine Tastings



What do great books and great wine have in common? Why does it feel like the wine changes when you taste the same vintage years later, apart from it maturing (and possibly you as well)? How can you pair books and bottles? How can you organize an informal wine tasting with friends or your book club?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Sam Hiyate on his podcast, Agent Provocateur.

You can find the wines we discussed here.



  • Which Niagara wine pairs well with haunting books that stay with you long after you finish them?
  • Why don’t I recommend The Handmaid’s Tale wines?
  • How can you pair Nasty Woman wines?
  • Which bottle would I bring on a boat with a tiger?
  • What can you learn from revisiting old bottles and books you loved?
  • Why should you host a wine tasting party or wine club?
  • How can you maximize your budget and selection for a wine tasting?
  • What are my best tips for creating the guestlist for your wine tasting?
  • How can you help your guests drink in moderation at a tasting party?
  • What are horizontal and vertical tastings?
  • What types of themes can you try at your wine tasting?
  • What’s involved in a blind tasting?
  • Which type of stemware works best for multiple types of wines?
  • How can you prepare appropriately for expectoration?
  • Which characteristics should you look for when tasting wine?
  • What’s the best technique to use for tasting wine?

Start The Conversation: Click Below to Share These Wine Tips


About Sam Hiyate

Sam Hiyate worked at the literary magazines, Blood & Aphorisms and The Quarterly, in the 90s. He ran the edgy micropublisher, Gutter Press, from 1993 to 2002, as publisher. He launched the literary division of The Lavin Agency in 2003, where he built a list of clients and did his first deals.

Sam’s projects for the agency have been in various categories, including memoir, literary and commercial fiction, narrative non-fiction and graphic novels. He’s looking for works of all categories with distinct and compelling voices. He loved to discover and help new writers prepare their works for the market, and to help them build a career with their talent.




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Sam Hiyate 0:00
I thought we’d be pairing iconic Canadian books with various wines. Let’s start with JL Richardson’s debut gutter child.

Natalie MacLean 0:08
I love this book, Sam. I think of this book as haunting. Like it stays with you long after you finished it. And that is actually how I think about great wines. You just keep remembering them. I would pair JL Richardson’s book with a local favourite from Niagara 30 bench small lot. Cabernet Franc. It’s bold, and it’s brooding. But most importantly, this wine has great structure. Important for books to as I understand, it’s got a long finish that lasts forever. So I think it’d be a great pairing with gutter child.

Sam Hiyate 0:43
Oh my god, what a great line. So great structure and finish the last forever. I feel like you’re reviewing the book there. It’s awesome.

Natalie MacLean 0:50
Exactly. Well, books and bottles right?

Natalie MacLean 0:58
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations? Oh, that’s the blend here on the unreserved wine talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 154. What the great books and great wines have in common? Why does it feel like the wine changes when you taste the same vintage years later? Apart from the wine maturing or possibly you as well? Can you pair books and bottles? And how can you organise an informal wine tasting with friends or your book club? You’ll get those answers in more wine tips in my chat with Sam Hyatt, the President and CEO of the rights factory, a Toronto based literary agency that represents authors in the categories of memoir, literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. And I’m proud to say Sam is my literary agent. Sam and his team have also launched a brilliant new podcast about books and writing called agent provocateur. Each episode has thought provoking panel debates and interviews about topics such as the merits and drawbacks of booktalk are Tik Tok. As a marketing platform, whether novelist should chase the trend by inserting COVID related content into their manuscripts, the future of celebrity bookclubs think Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, etc. And an analysis of former US President Barack Obama’s most recent reading list. Sam interviewed me on his podcast which you can find wherever you listen to my podcast. In the show notes, you’ll find links to Sam’s podcast and his literary agency, the rights factory, a full transcript of our conversation, links to where you can buy my books, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class and where you can find me on Zoom Insta Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at Natalie Maclean comm forward slash or 1541 a personal note before we dive into the show, one of my most recent book and bottle pairings was Glennon Doyle’s memoir untamed with an Arizona is wild ferment Pinot Noir from Chile. It’s a juicy, smooth, medium bodied wine, bursting with fleshy ripe notes of cherries. While ferment means the winemaker used wild airborne yeasts that float around naturally in the vineyard to ferment the wine rather than using a commercially cultivated strain. They’re looking for more dramatic flavours when they do this, as well as those that come from the vineyard itself. So the wine is a more complete expression of the land. So yes, that’s the connection between a wild ferment and Glen’s untamed. Now my favourite line in her book is your goddamn cheetah. You’ll have to read the book to find out what she’s referring to. Okay, on with the show.

Sam Hiyate 4:39
For those of you who can resist everything except temptation, there’s nothing better than mixing thinking and drinking. Our next piece Paris bottles and books

Sam Hiyate 4:57
Today we’re chatting with Natalie McLean, who was The author of two best selling books and the host of unreserved wine talk, which the New York Times named one of the seven best drinks podcast. Hi, Natalie, Welcome to Asian provocateur, or as they say in English agent provocateur. Love it, Sam. It’s great to be here. Awesome. I’m so excited to have you today. I thought we’d be pairing iconic Canadian books with various wines. Let’s start with JL Richardson’s debut gutter child. This is a fierce coming of age story set in a dystopian world, which is divided between the privilege mainland people and the disadvantage gutter inhabitants. The heroine is one of only 100 Babies taken from the gutter to be raised in the mainland as a social experiment. But when her mainland mother dies, she finds herself fighting to survive.

Natalie MacLean 5:52
Hmm, wow, good choice. I love this book, Sam. I think of this book as haunting like it stays with you long after you’ve finished it. And that is actually how I think about great wines too. You just keep remembering them. They keep coming back to you. And so I think I would pair JL Richardson’s book with a local favourite from Niagara 30 bench, small lot. Cabernet Franc, and it’s made by Rockstar winemaker Emma Garner. It’s bold, and it’s brooding. But most importantly, this wine has great structure. Important for books too, as I understand, it’s got a long finish that lasts forever. So I think it’d be a great pairing with gutter child.

Sam Hiyate 6:35
Oh my god, what a great line. So great structure and finish the last forever. I feel like you’re reviewing the book there. It’s awesome.

Natalie MacLean 6:42
Exactly. Well, books and bottles right.

Sam Hiyate 6:44
So Natalie are there dystopian wines? Like what would you do with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,

Natalie MacLean 6:50
right. It’s actually funny you bring that one up because I I actually selected it as a book in high school for book report which really worried my English teacher because it’s got such a dark theme, so I absolutely loved it. But I guess in the spirit of a dystopia I’m going to do an anti pairing sound. I don’t want to hear this. Yeah, anti pairing. Do not pair to share this book with The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sam Hiyate 7:19
Why wait wait, wait, wait, wait there’s something called The Handmaid’s Tale whines is this like FROM THE HANDMAID’S TALE world that somehow got transposed across the multiverse to here?

Natalie MacLean 7:30
It did. So MGM I think it was I wrote about these wines A while back, but they did a partnership for the I think it was for the TV series. But here’s why I don’t recommend them. You think it’d be a natural pairing? They named each wine after the characters in the book, like off red. So offers Pinot Noir was described as beguiling and seductive and she needs to cars anyway, but I thought, you know, why are you naming these wines? After sort of the possessive non name non moniker of the woman’s commander, why not use their real names like June and Emily if you really want to get all empowerment about it. So instead, I would recommend pairing. Handmaid’s Tale with Nasty Woman wines. I love these. They’re from Oregon and Washington. And each of the labels of these nasty woman wines which were founded on election day. 2006. I’m not gonna go there. But anyway,

Sam Hiyate 8:31
we call it anti Trump wines. So no, no, no, they’re,

Natalie MacLean 8:35
you know, anti 45. But each label features a real life woman in sort of like a gritty black and white photo there staring confidently at the camera. There’s no photoshopping, no mommy’s juice and whatever. But one of the labels has the picture of Cheryl Strayed you know, the best selling wine or wild Yes, exactly. So I just love it because on the label, she’s on the label for persistent Pinot GRI, of course, that winemaker had to get permission, but they tell the real stories of real women and the struggles they went through. And 20% of the profits go to women empowerment groups, so I love the whole backstory and back label of this wine frankly. So I think that’d be a perfect pairing. Whether you’re reading Cheryl straights wild, or The Handmaid’s Tale because persistence is everything in flavour. This one is wine has a persistent lime zest. And I think most importantly, whether it’s books or bottles, it has no bitter aftertaste.

Sam Hiyate 9:34
Oh, another great book description I’m gonna use. I’m gonna call you and say Natalie, i Hi, would you describe this book because I’ll just use it to pitch it

Natalie MacLean 9:42
to editors. Exactly. Just substitute the word book and bottle you’ll be fine.

Sam Hiyate 9:46
Awesome. So not that this will happen that often in our lives. But let’s say we’re stuck on a boat with a tiger. What would be a great wine with let’s say Yann Martel’s life of buy.

Natalie MacLean 9:58
Right Well, let’s see that I would have to go with a dessert wine. Right? I know it’s pie versus pie. But anyway, I would go with 10 horn creeks. Kirner icewine. So it’s got these luscious flavours of ripe apricot and peach and sort of how do you do notes that I think would be perfect with Life of Pi, pi, and maybe having your cake and

Sam Hiyate 10:25
eating it too. And maybe the tiger has a sweet tooth. So you just have to give the wine to the traveller to knock the tiger out, then you can escape,

Natalie MacLean 10:32
distract the Tigers with the pie at the other end of the boat and you drink the wine at the other end. Yes,

Sam Hiyate 10:38
perfect. Okay, let’s move things along here. What about Emma Donna, whose room this is the story of a young mother and her five year old son Jack, who are both held captive in a small room for many years. It’s told from Jack’s perspective, which is fascinating, especially after they’re afraid from the room. Jack doesn’t want things to change, because that’s all he’s ever really known. But eventually, when they both revisit the room, he’s able to let it go, which is kind of I guess, a message about trauma. Anyway, the room hasn’t changed. But he has.

Natalie MacLean 11:07
Yes, yes, exactly. Wow, this was wonderful book. Again, sorry to last do it back. But this is my job here. I think wines change over time, too. So there’s the first time you try why, and it has a certain taste. But then if you go back to that wine, like a different bottle, but of the same wine years later, the wine has changed, but so have you. And you know when I open the same bottle years later, decades later, I can often remember exactly where I was, who I was with what I was even eating, our sense of smell is the only sense that ties directly to emotion and memory in the brain. So that’s really actually yeah, because when Bruce was eating that Madeline, it didn’t bring back everything because of how it tasted it brought back everything because of how it smelled. You know, as he ate it, you know, you get the smells. So I love doing that revisiting old wines or books just to see how I’ve changed over time. So given room is a very tightly confined setting. But eventually it’s you know, very expansive and its scope universal. That’s the ideal for books and bottles to start with a specific and go wide. I would probably go with a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc verlo from a very good vintage though, like 2020 2020 Of course wasn’t a great vintage for humans, but it was spectacular. For wine

Sam Hiyate 12:40
somebody. Yeah, apparently was a good year for books. If you look back on it.

Natalie MacLean 12:45
Yeah, well, there you go. See there’s a silver lining or whatever. A Bordeaux like Chateau Clark would not be ready for drinking right now you want to have patience, put it in your cellar so that it knits together over time and then comes out more subtle, more complex, more enjoyable. As I say patience does have its rewards with books. Sometimes when you have to get through the tough slog maybe at the first or through the middle. But in the end, if you can stay with it. Often that’s the reward. Right?

Sam Hiyate 13:15
Thanks so much, Natalie. This has been so enlightening in so many ways, except now I feel like I’m not a de drinker. But I really feel like I need a glass of maybe something right?

Natalie MacLean 13:23
And I’ve done my job.

Sam Hiyate 13:26
Okay, so where can we find you in these parents?

Natalie MacLean 13:29
Sure. So you can find them on my website, Natalie Maclean calm, and I would love to hear from thirsty readers and listeners, if they have a favourite book or bottle pairing, or if they’ve got a book that they want me to pair. I guess the last pairing I would make Sam is with the book that you and I are working on my memoir. And I take solace from a number of the books that we’ve just talked about. were rejected multiple times from various publishers. So I’m going to be tough. And I’m going to be hopeful and optimistic this fall when we go out with the memoir on submission. And if not, you and I Sam, we’re just going to have a glass or four together,

Sam Hiyate 14:08
right? I’m going to I’m going to say we’re gonna it’s gonna be a bottle of something bubbly. That’s my prediction to when we’re being we’re done this whole enterprise. Thanks so much, Natalie. Cheers, Sam. Great, great chat. Thank you.

Sam Hiyate 14:26
That’s our show, folks. Thanks for your time and attention, and to all of our guests for coming on. Once again, we’re grateful and very thankful to our producer Andrew Kaufman. And if you do like us and are enjoying Asian provocateur, please subscribe for free at Asian and come back next week when we talk about Harry and Megan’s big book deal. And we have our panel on men in publishing and boys in books. Till then take care

Natalie MacLean 15:14
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Sam Hyatt. Now we’ll share some tips on organising an informal wine tasting with your friends or your book club. I spoke about this topic I’m one of my regular segments for CTV is the social and I’ll include a link to that in the show notes at Natalie Maclean comm forward slash 154.

So, there are many excellent reasons to host a wine tasting party—or even to form a wine club. For one thing, wine is a social beverage—one that’s meant to be shared with friends.

And it’s more fun to drink than to buy Tupperware—unless, of course, you’re drinking from the Tupperware. The only goal is to enjoy yourself and perhaps find a new favourite bottle.

Although wine does lend itself to serious technical analysis, that’s not really necessary. You don’t need a PhD to talk about it: anyone can share opinions about the wine.

Most people just want to socialize over a good glass or two (or three); though it’s a bonus if we can learn something too.

Wine can also kick-start the conversation—it’s something that people can talk about, especially when they’re meeting each other for the first time.

Tasting with friends, in your home or theirs, is usually less intimidating than going to formal events.

For starters, you don’t have to wear a tweed jacket or listen to discussions on how the 1956 September rains ruined the riesling fruit set in the Rheingau.

You also get to decide on the day, the time, the theme, the accompanying food, the people and the cost of the wines.

Wine tastings can be a great way to get to know your neighbors, perhaps by inviting them over for a barbecue and matching big red wines.cheese and wine plate

Tastings can also be a creative twist on holiday cocktail or dinner parties; they’re usually less work than setting up all the ingredients for a cocktail bar or cooking a full meal.

But if you plan to throw a dinner party anyway, why not serve a flight of wines—several at once rather than one glass at a time? (Just remember to moderate what you pour, with two to three ounces of each wine instead of a full glass.)

With tens of thousands of wines on store shelves, the choices can be overwhelming. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, that delicious and reasonably-priced bottle. Group tastings maximize your wine budget since you can sample six to eight wines for the cost of the one bottle you bring to the group.

Tastings can also help you select wines for weddings, parties and holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. You can even use a tasting to choose the bottles to help stock a newlywed couple’s first cellar or to lay down for your baby’s 21st birthday.

The first step in hosting a tasting is to choose who you want to invite. I strongly suggest picking only people you like. Beyond that, gather those who share the same knowledge level of wine. (If one person happens to be very knowledgeable, make sure he or she isn’t an insufferable bore who’ll dominate the conversation.)

Some groups occasionally invite a guest expert to begin the tasting, then follow the formal talk with informal group discussion.

Ideally, invite between six and twelve people: a good number to have a lively conversation and to sample between six and eight bottles. (You don’t want everyone inebriated by the end of the night unless you have a guest house that sleeps twelve.)

Over the course of two or three hours, your guests will probably consume two to three five-ounce glasses of wine—about half a standard 750 ml (26-oz) bottle. Tasting samples of two to three ounces each are just enough to get a good sense of the wine. This increases the number of wines you can try: between six and twelve people can share a single bottle.

The wines you choose will depend on whether you prefer a “vertical” or “horizontal” tasting. This doesn’t refer to your position while you drink as the night wears on. Rather, it means comparing wines by variables, such as grape, region or year.

For example, if you compare a selection of Australian shirazes from different wineries, that’s a horizontal tasting. But comparing the shirazes of one Australian winery for each year from 1998 to 2004 is a vertical tasting.

Similarly, trying shiraz from Chile, California and Australia made in the same year is a horizontal tasting, as is sampling shiraz with other red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel.

You can get even more particular by comparing shirazes from the same region, some of which are oaked and others which are not. This side-by-side comparison allows you to taste how certain variables affect the wine and which you like best.

But these are advanced tasting techniques; at the beginning, your best bet is to keep it simple and low-key, so that no one is intimidated.

Other ideas for themes include asking everyone to bring a memorable bottle and share its story—perhaps they drank it to christen their first apartment or on a wonderful trip to Italy.

Another is to choose wines that break stereotypes, such as the myth that the only good Canadian wine is icewine. (Try Canadian pinot noir and riesling—they’ll knock your socks off.)

Or just have fun with a retro 1970s tasting, to see if groovy tipples such as Mateus, Blue Nun, Piat d’Or and Black Tower have changed since then? (More likely, your own taste has.)

Send invitations on psychedelic purple paper. Get out the lava lamps, love beads and long lapels; play those old favorites such as The Lion Sleeps Tonight; and have a glass jazz concept background

Food matching is also a great way to theme a tasting: deciding which wines go best with seafood, cheese, desserts, hors d’oeuvres and so on.

The food doesn’t have to be elaborate; nibbles are fine. Opt for dishes that aren’t too spicy or hot since these can numb the palate—unless, of course, you’re trying to find the ultimate wine for a fiery Madras curry.

Another option is the “blind” tasting, at which you brown-bag all the wines and taste them without knowing their identities until the end, when everyone votes on a favorite.

Guests can rank them in order of preference, with a score of one to ten—or even play the Roman emperor, giving the vinous “combatants” a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. (In the end, they’ll all go down without a struggle.)

As the host, you might want to throw in a Chilean cabernet among those from California, for example, to see if guests can identify the “ringer.”

Moving on to practical matters such as cost, your group can determine how much to spend on the wines. In fact, sticking within the same price range for all the wines is a better way to compare them than pitting a $10 wine against one that costs $50.

Once you’ve agreed on the budget, you can decide whether the host buys all the wines and is reimbursed or whether each person or couple brings a bottle to each tasting.

Another consideration is stemware: six to twelve people sampling six to eight wines apiece means a lot of glasses. You can cut down somewhat by trying two flights or two sets of four wines at a time and then simply rinsing and reusing the glasses for the second flight of four wines.

But if you want to try all the wines at once, there are several options. Guests can bring their own glasses from home, you can rent glasses for the occasion from a party rental shop or the group can pool funds to buy glassware for the tastings.

Choose tulip-shaped glasses that concentrate the aromas of both red and white wines and allow you to taste them more easily.

Those itsy-bitsy golf-ball-sized glasses that you often see in restaurants are useless and the fancy large glasses the size of fish bowls are clumsy and take up too much space on the table.

All that glassware may not fit on your coffee table so you may prefer to taste the wines at the dining table. Then afterwards, you can retire to the living room for tea, coffee, dessert and more conversation.

One of the less sociable aspects of wine tasting is expectorating—spitting out your samples. Nobody should have to swallow wine they don’t like or be forced to drink too much. And even if you don’t have a white carpet, you’ll want to give your guests something in which to spit.

Concept red wine flavours – violetFor this charming tradition, you’ll want some version of a spittoon on the table, whether it’s a central ice bucket or individual glasses or mugs. (Opaque rather than clear preserves the much-needed illusion of delicacy.)

Some guests may think this habit as appalling as spitting out their food, but you can help to remove the social stigma by explaining that it’s perfectly acceptable and that you can taste more wines if you spit rather than swallow. (Though in a social setting, a force stronger than gravity makes most of us want to swallow whatever is in our glass.)

It’s also important to make sure that everyone has a glass of water. Not only is alcohol dehydrating, but guests won’t drink as much wine if they have water to slake their thirst.

And now on to the fun part: tasting the wine. There are four basic things to look for when you taste wine: look, smell, taste and finish. The first means you need good light—though of course that’s a balance between creating a cozy social setting and being able to see what you’re doing.

Candlelight isn’t ideal for judging the color of wine, but you also don’t want a harshly-lit lab-like environment. Look at the wine tipped on its side against a white tablecloth, or even a piece of paper, to tell how clear it is, or whether there’s anything floating in it.

You can also see how old it is. Young whites are usually green at the edges and become a deeper yellow or gold with time; reds are usually purple or ruby in youth and turn to garnet or brick in age. Avoid holding your glass up to the light though—this tells you little other than how many colors the wine can reflect from the wallpaper.

Next, give the glass a swirl and inhale deeply. Don’t be shy about this inelegant task: get your nose well inside the glass. Since wine’s aromas are volatile, smell is considered the determining factor of wine character.

In fact, we can detect more than two thousand aromas with our noses, but only five tastes in our mouths (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and a savory character called umami). Try sipping wine with your nose plugged and you’ll taste the difference.

What do the wine’s aromas remind you of: wood chips, cherries, apples, your Aunt Mildred’s spice cake? This is a subjective judgment that becomes sharper with time and experience. This is a good reason to get rid of competing odors: ask guests not to wear strong perfume or cologne.

Now taste the wine. Swirl it around your mouth and aerate it by sucking in a little air through your mouth to further enhance the taste. (You may want to practice this in the shower at home first—or at least, don’t wear white the first time you try it.)

Think about not only what flavours you detect, but also how the wine feels in your mouth: heavy as cream, light as skim milk or somewhere in between, like whole milk?

Finally, swallow the wine to see how long the flavour impression lasts—its finish. A long finish means you can still sense the wine in your mouth for eight seconds or more after swallowing.

A medium finish is four to seven seconds and fewer than four seconds is short. The longer the finish, the better.

Wine tastings are one of the simplest, yet most enjoyable ways to entertain. They can be as educational or as hedonistic as you like.

They can accommodate just about any budget, theme, occasion or taste. All that’s necessary are good friends to share them with. Cheers!

Alright, so in the show notes, you will find links to Sam’s podcast and literary agency, the full transcript of our conversation as well as all my tips on organising a wine tasting links to where you can buy my books, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class. And where you can find me on Zoom Insta Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at Natalie McLean comm forward slash one by four. You won’t want to miss next week when I talk about the Beaujolais craze that happens on the third Thursday of November every year. What’s all the fuss about? Should you stay up until midnight to taste the new release? Find out next week. In the meantime, if you missed episode 22 go back and take a listen. I take a behind the scenes look at writing my first book, red, white and drunk all over. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite. Wine has given me an excuse to be extremely nosy and to ask impertinent questions that I would never ask. I’m an introvert, which is great for writing. But I also need as a crutch and wine is my crutch not just personally, but professionally. It allows me to go into people’s homes to sit at their family dining tables, and to ask really blunt and sometimes embarrassing questions. And so wine has taken me into places that I would never have access to, nor would my readers, and when I was on a book tour for my last book, they said, how on earth did you get into domain Romany Conti? It comes out on sale at about a couple $1,000 A bottle. It’s not me who’s getting access? It’s the fact that I bring you, my readers with me. They want to reach you. They can’t accommodate all of you. So they let me in. And that’s how I get to ask those juicy questions. If you liked this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines and books and wine tasting club tips we discussed. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I have something great is in your class this week. Perhaps a wine with a towering structure and a long everlasting finish to match the book you’re reading

Natalie MacLean 31:21
you don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Natalie Maclean comm forward slash subscribe, maybe here next week. Cheers