Category Archives: Wine critics

Why I Don’t Use Scores


My 60 Second Wine Reviews are a regular feature that give me a chance to geek out about various wines. But while I deliver a “Verdict” at the end of each review, I also leave a glaring omission.

I don’t give a numerical score.

It’s not that I’m morally opposed to using the 100 point scale popularized by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator or the 20 point scale favored by Jancis Robinson and UC-Davis. In fact, I regularly look at scores by those publications and use them as tools in researching wines.

But I think they’re useless for me to give out.

A 7 Point Scale

When I first started using CellarTracker, I got into the habit of rating wines numerically but soon discovered a disturbing trend. While in theory I had 100 points to divvy out, in truth, I was really only working on a scale of 87-94.

If the wine was well made but not my style, 90-91 points. If it had some issues then 87-89. For wines I really liked it was 92-93. If it blew me away then a 94.

For some reason I just couldn’t rate anything above 94 because I felt like there was always the potential for something else to come along to raise the bar—even though I’ve enjoyed some amazing wines over the years.

The 1996 Chateau Margaux? 94 points.
The 2010 Angelus? 94 points.
The 2005 Quilceda Creek? 94 points.
The 2012 Chappellet Pritchard Hill? 94 points.
The 1970 Taylor Vintage Port? 94 points.
The 1996 Champagne Salon? 94 points.

This is not a slight on any of those wines and they all deserved the much higher scores they got from professional critics. But for me, even though I richly enjoyed them and felt that I got more than my money’s worth with each, there was still that mental and emotional barrier that didn’t want to go higher than 94 points.

Painting by EGrützner. Sourced from Ketterer Kunst Auktion: 402, 14.05.2013, lot 699. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Trust me, I’m a professional drinker.


It’s silly but isn’t trying to quantify numerically all the nuances of wine a fool’s errand anyways?

And truthfully when it comes playing the fool (and doing it well), we can’t all be a Falstaff, Stanczyk, Claus Narr or James Suckling.

I Rate With My Wallet

And I believe that most wine drinkers do the same.

While we might sometimes indulge our inner Robert Parkers with scoring, I would wager that most of the time when we evaluate a wine, we judge it on if we got enough pleasure to merit the cost of what we paid. It’s human nature to expect more from a $100 bottle of wine than a $10 bottle and that is the approach I take with each wine I taste.

I view the cost of each bottle as a potential investment in pleasure and I seek a solid return on my investment.

94 points but well worth splurging on to try at least once in your life.


And it is my investment as my wife and I personally buy more than 90% of the wines (and whiskeys) that I review on this blog whether it be the 2006 Petrus, 20 year Pappy Van Winkle, Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé or the Groth, Pegau CdP, etc. A few times even at restaurant mark ups!

Now some wines like the 2007 Poisot Romanée-Saint-Vivant and the wines featured in my Walla Walla Musings post, I do get to taste at tastings open to industry/media and I often get my tasting fees waived at wineries for being in the industry–but with each wine I always default back to the question of “Would I pay $$ to purchase this wine?”

If I’m tasting it blind and I don’t know the cost, I ascribe a price point that I feel would be good value if I was buying the wine.

But unlike Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling and the like, I’m not trying to be a professional wine critic or consumer advocate. I’m just a geek who likes to drink.

I rate wines on my personal scale of if I think they’re worth spending money on because ultimately that’s what I’m interested in–do I want to buy this wine (again)? Just as other folks have their own personal tastes, people also have their own personal scale of value.

That’s perfectly fine and, frankly, is the reason why I put the “Verdict” section at the very bottom of each review. My opinion is just my opinion and, besides, it’s really the “Geekery” section where you’ll find the good stuff anyways.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/10/18 — Rising Wine Prices, Reviewing Young Wine and Flashcards

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Wine prices to rise as bad weather brings worst harvest for 50 years by Zoe Wood (@zoewoodguardian) of The Guardian (@guardian). Brought to my dash via John Corcoran (@jncorcoran1).

2017 was pretty much a rough vintage across the globe with yields hitting some of the lowest levels seen in over 50 years. The Drinks Business had a particularly eye-opening chart about just how low crop levels were in Bordeaux.

There is going to be consequences to what has been called “The worst global harvest since 1961” with the most immediate being seen in increased prices for early release wines such as sparkling Prosecco and white wines like Pinot grigio.

Now this article is written from a UK POV and for US consumers, I don’t think the situation is quite as dire. As we noted in the 3/6 edition of Geek Notes, the 2017 vintage in Washington was actually the second largest in state history. While there was some bumpiness in Oregon and California, for the most part the major wine producing areas of the US emerged from 2017 in good shape.

That said, this article is still helpful for US wine drinkers to consider because we will likely see higher prices for European wines–particularly Prosecco and Rioja–simply because there will be less supply. Especially with Prosecco’s continued and sustained popularity, sparkling wines fans are going to have to pay the piper of market demand. Now instinct would think that Cava would be the beneficiary of Prosecco consumers looking elsewhere but, like Rioja, the Cava DOs had their issues in 2017.

Perhaps producers in the budding Oregon sparkling wine industry will capitalize on this moment with introducing value priced bubbles?

Great acidity, great fruit, great structure. This young 2016 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon could be great–but right now it is just a baby.

Young Red Wine, Wise Red Wine by Meg Houston Maker (@megmaker) of Terroir Review. Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net).

Every year the market sees a flood of brand spanking new wines emerge for people to enjoy. But the thing is, a lot of these new wines simply aren’t ready to be enjoyed yet.

Still these fresh-faced, juvenile wines are sent to critics to be reviewed and to wine shops to be put on the shelf as soon as the previous vintage is sold.

In many ways, it is unfair to judge these wines critically and Meg Houston Maker goes through the process of what it is like as a critic trying to play prognosticator of a wine’s future.

Meg’s post has particular resonance for me after finishing my 60 Second Review of the Oh-So-Young-But-Potentially-Oh-So-Good 2016 Hedges In Vogue Cabernet Sauvignon. At around $30 for a Red Mountain Cab from a top producer, it certainly looks like it could be an absolute steal of a wine that may be worth stocking up on. But it just so young right now and while my gut instinct feels like its going to develop into something magnificent, at this point it is just what Houston Maker says–an exercise in prognostication.

Something fun to get your Geek-on!

Via Reddit, I discovered this cool Instagram account featuring Wine Study Flashcards. There are over 150 flashcards so far, covering a variety of topics and the account looks to be fairly active with periodically adding new flashcards.

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Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine

Photo by Financial Times. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The world of wine has a long history of influential women.

It’s quite possible that the first “accidental winemakers” were women who were often responsible for gathering fruit and storing them in jars that would later start fermenting. Ancient cultures are awashed with stories of wine goddesses like Paget, Siduri and Renen-utet.

In more recent history, we have the notable widows of Champagne and the trailblazing women winemakers of California as well as numerous other women figures from across the globe.

But for me, and my journey in the world of wine, no woman in wine has been more influential than British Master of Wine and writer Jancis Robinson.

Independent Woman

Robinson studied mathematics and philosophy at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University, graduating with a Masters degree in 1971. Her original goal was to write about fashion but tasting a 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses at Oxford enraptured her with the world of wine. In 1975, she accepted a position as an assistant editor for Wine & Spirit trade publication where she worked till 1980. During this time she began her studies for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust–earning the Rouyer-Guillet cup as the top Diploma student in 1978.

In 1983, she helped launched the The Wine Programme on British television which was the world’s first television series dedicated to the topic of wine.

Initially, the diploma level was the highest level that a person outside the wine trade could achieve but, in 1984, the Institute of Masters of Wine opened up the MW exams to non-trade personnel with Robinson being one of the first to take the exam. She passed on her first try–becoming the first non-trade professional, male or female, to earn the title. She was the 11th female Master of Wine, following in the footsteps of Sarah Morphew Stephen who was the first in 1970.

My very well loved and well used 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

In 1990, Robinson became the wine correspondent for the Financial Times and, in 1994, was given the task of editing the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. While managing a team of contributors that ballooned up to 167 by the time the 3rd edition came out in 2006, Robinson personally wrote more than a third of the almost 4000 entries. It has been described by The Washington Post as “the greatest wine book ever published.” In 2015, a 4th edition was released.

Irreplaceable

2006 was also the year that I discovered my own passion for wine–at Disney World’s Epcot Center of all places. Touring around the different food pavilions and sampling wine in their mocked up recreations of Italy, France and Germany, my 24 year old palate fell in love with the Valcklenberg Madonna Riesling. It wasn’t 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses but that was enough to get me hooked and wanting to learn more.

I’ve had my geeky proclivities since I was child, reading for fun things like the Encyclopedia Britannica in my free time. I loved getting lost in what I called “red text journeys” where I started reading an entry, following one of the capitalized red text words to a subsequent entry and so forth till I hit a dead-end. Then I would pick another entry and start again.

It was at Barnes and Noble when I first laid eyes on the beauty that was the Oxford Companion to Wine. The new pages smelled divine and my eyes lit up as I saw all the different entries (and RED TEXT WORDS!) Here was my new Brittanica! Of course, I flipped straight to the Riesling entry which covered 3 pages.

Another well loved and well marked up tome.


Bringing it home, I starting following the red text words from Riesling to German History to Wild Vine to Phylloxera to Bordeaux and on along an endless ride that touched nearly every corner of the world of wine. The history entries and wine regions particularly enticed me as I saw a web connecting my fascination with history and geography to this continuing story about wine. It was a story that I wanted to put more in context which led me to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course.

Crazy In Love

It was about 2007 when I purchased the DVD series and companion book. I watched the 10 episodes with my wife but the book was all mine to mark up and annotate to my heart’s desire. Here I learned some of the nitty gritty details about tasting wine, deciphering wine labels as well as learning how grape varieties and place intertwined. From interviews Robinson had with people like Dominique Lafon, Lalou Bize Leroy, Didier Dagueneau and Randall Grahm, I learned more about the stories of the people behind the wine which made the time and effort they put into the bottle come to life for me.

It was also at this time that I slowly started moving away from the comfort of my sweet Rieslings to drier whites and then finally reds. How could I not? Watching Jancis enjoy and describe these wines made them too irresistible to not want to at least try! My “crush on wine” was becoming full blown love at this point and I started entertaining ideas of pursuing a career in wine.

I startled my wife when I opened the cover of the World Atlas of Wine and saw this.
She thought there might have been a spider!

In 2008, I left working retail management and dived head first into achieving my first certification with a Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators. That opened the door to working as a wine steward for a major grocery chain. Unfortunately that chain didn’t have much commitment to training and furthering the wine knowledge of its stewards but I didn’t despair. I had Jancis Robinson.

By this point my collection of her books had expanded to include Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties and the 5th Edition of the World Atlas of Wine which caused me to audibly squeal with joy when I discovered the used copy I bought on Amazon came signed by both Robinson and co-author Hugh Johnson.

All the Single Grapes

I became an active contributor to Wikipedia’s Wine Project as User:Agne27 where I set about to substantially rewrite and expand many of Wikipedia’s wine articles–with my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine at my side. When Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz released their magnum opus of ampelography and geekdom, Wine Grapes, that became another immensely valuable tool. Until the sexism and politics of Wikipedia drove me away, I was pretty darn committed to creating a Wikipedia entry for all 1,368 grapes that Robinson and Co. enlivened my world with.

I don’t think there was a single article of the 1200+ I worked on for Wikipedia that didn’t reference one of Robinson’s works. In my opinion, she was the benchmark standard for reliability when it came to wine. While I found other wine authors and references, if there was ever a conflict of sources, I always went back to Robinson as the most authoritative word on the matter.

For the most part, I toiled away in the obscurity of crowd-sourcing–not really expecting any kind of recognition. But I have to admit that my heart did flutter a bit when I read a 2015 post by Jancis Robinson on her Purple Pages about What future for expertise? where she noted that she often finds the Oxford Companion cited at the bottom of Wikipedia articles.

I know that reference, in a post about the potential waning influence of true experts in this digital age, wasn’t exactly meant to be a compliment. But she noticed!

Though I always tried my best to rewrite and regurgitate into my own words what I learned, I do feel that my frequent citations of her work is a testament to the unpayable debt I have to her. I wanted people to see how often the Oxford Companion to Wine, Wine Grapes and her other works were cited because people who go to Wikipedia should know how much of this is tied back to her. I learned so much during those years and it all comes back to Jancis Robinson.

And I’m still learning from her. All you have to do is look at the word cloud at the bottom of this blog’s front page to see how large the font is for the Jancis Robinson tag. She is still my benchmark standard and, frankly, my hero. To me, she’s bigger than Beyoncé.

A growing collection. Each one as marked up, highlighted and wine stained as the next.

The 1500+ words in this post can never do justice in encapsulating all the many ways she has inspired and encouraged me in this journey. I can only dream of ever accomplishing a fraction of what she has done. But everything that I will end up accomplishing, anyone that I will ever inspire to fall in love with wine and thirst to learn more will be because of Jancis Robinson.

I’m working on the WSET diploma level and, someday, I hope to join Jancis in the ranks of 125+ female Masters of Wine. If I ever do get to that point and go to London to get my MW, you better believe that I will be packing my trusty 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion of Wine.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/3/18 — Rose Cider, Parker Points and Washington Wine History.

Photo by THOR. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
This is what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine and beverages.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

The Year of Rosé Cider Is Upon Us by Mike Pomranz (@pomranz) for Food & Wine magazine (@foodandwine). This made its way to my dash via #WiningHourChat (@WiningHourChat).

Good to see a legit article from Food & Wine after the BS they published from their “Champagne Master/Wine Prophet”. The picture of the red fleshed Amour Rouge species of apple is gorgeous and makes my mouth water. But where the article really shines is in shedding light on all the many different ways that cider producers can add color to their ciders–hibiscus and rose petals, maceration with red wine grape skins, etc. Very interesting and worth a read to stay a step ahead of what will undoubtedly be one of the top beverage trends of the summer.

Do Parker points matter any more? from @jamiegoode

The blog post (from one of my favorite wine writers/tool) is worth a read but so are the comments in reply to Jamie’s tweet which includes insight from The Wine Cellar Insider (@JeffLeve), Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay (@LizGabayMW) and several others.

I think my view is summed up well in the reply made by MW student and Waitrose category manager Anne Jones (@AnneEJones). Points matter to the wine drinkers who want them to matter while other drinkers could care less. Different strokes for different folks.

March is Taste Washington Wine Month

All this month I will be focusing on Washington wines with my 60 Second Reviews. While researching for my reviews of the 2014 Scarborough Stand Alone Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Browne Family Vineyards Site Series Cabernet Sauvignon, I came across two links that caught my eye.

Associated Vintners — Washington’s Academic Winemakers (April 2016) by Peter Blecha for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Red Willow Vineyard where David Lake and his team at Columbia helped Mike Sauer and his crew at Red Willow plant the Syrah that would become one of the first commercial bottlings of the variety in Washington.

Tremendous essay on the history of Associated Vintners (AV). So much history was made by this winery (now known as Columbia Winery) including having the first vintage dated varietal wines, first Pinot gris, first commercial Syrah with Red Willow and first Washington Master of Wine with David Lake. I learned several things from this article including the interesting connection between William B. Bridgman (of Harrison Hill fame) and AV.

Regular readers may remember from my Wine Clubs Done Right post that Columbia Winery holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Washington wines to make me go “WOW!” and the first wine club I ever joined. It was also were my mentor, Peter Bos, served as cellarmaster to David Lake and much of what I learned about winemaking was about how things were done “back in the day” at Columbia. Seeing the changes in style of Columbia was one of my first big disappointments in the wine industry. Still, this engaging and well written piece about such an important part of Washington wine history was a joy to read.

Another Seattle winery served legal papers over naming issue (May 2015) by Lindsey Cohen of KOMO News.

This is not as much about the joy of the Washington wine industry as a “WTF are you serious?” piece about the realities of the wine world. I came across this while researching the Scarborough article where I learned that Travis Scarborough got hit with a cease and desist letter from former 49ers exec Carmen Policy’s Casa Piena vineyards because the name of one of his wine club tiers (Full House) was similar to the English translation of Casa Piena.

As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, Cohen interviews another small local Washington producer, Bartholomew Winery, that had similar issues because a wine named after one of the owner’s sons, Jaxon, was apparently too close to Jackson Family Estates (of Kendall-Jackson fame). Good grief! The sad truth of the matter is aptly summed up by Scarborough in the article–“They’ve already won…because when they send that out they know I can’t fight back.”

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Jamie Goode is a tool

by Dezertscorpion on Wikimedia Commons released under PD-Self
So is Robert Parker.

And Jancis Robinson.

And Antonio Galloni, Allen Meadows, Michel Bettane, James Suckling, James Laube, Alice Feiring, Karen MacNeil, Tom Wark.

Tools.

Frankly, so am I but rather than one of the nice Sears Craftsman or Ryobi tools from Lowes, I’m more of the extra Phillips-head screw driver you picked up at the dollar store on impulse–a tool cached away in the bottom of a kitchen drawer but a tool none the less.

All wine writers are tools which is why I read Jamie Goode’s defense of wine criticism and expertise on Vine Pair, Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others, with great amusement. The source of Goode’s ire is the view that the musings of wine critics like him are merely personal opinions and, since everyone has an opinion, there is not enough due credit given to the value and experience of expert opinions like his.

This is not a new complaint with many critics such as Jancis Robinson commenting on how the proliferation of smartphones and websites like Wikipedia and CellarTracker creates an arena where the esteemed opinion of a Master of Wine like hers has to fight for attention. Even outside of wine, many commentators have noted a general apathy towards “expert opinions” with anti-intellectualism being a full-fledged cultural movement in the West.

In this day and age since everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert. It’s no wonder that this modern arena of ideas is terrifying for folks who have devoted years of time, patience and labor into building a well of experience and expertise in their trade.

But what should be the response of the beleaguered experts who find themselves shouting into the void of crowd-sourced expertise?

Show, don’t tell.

I suppose the opinion from the god of wine, Bacchus, would be better than most. But only on wine. Not sure how much I would trust his opinion on fashion.

Jamie Goode is quite right in that there is immense value in the writings and opinions of wine experts like him. But it is not because he’s a pontiff, whose opinion and superior palate is blessed to be better than that of us regular joes.

It’s because he’s a tool. A tool that been honed and tested over time to produce reliable and dependable results. The value in wine critics like Jamie Goode is not in their opinion, itself, but in the background story and context that they can bring. When the average wine drinker is limited to the extent of their wallet and options at the local liquor store, a critic that can take them into the vineyard and winery offers a lens to the world of wine that can’t be gleamed from Wikipedia or in the pages of a new wine book.

This was a conclusion that Jancis Robinson, herself, came to during her existential pondering on the state of wine writing today.

But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something? — Jancis Robinson, The Financial Times September 4th, 2015

Jamie Goode is wrong in that his opinion, or final pronouncements on wine, is better. No one really cares if he picks up apricots and quince aromas or finds a wine to be exceptionally well balanced. Opinions are just the holiday wrapping around the package. Some packages can be more skillfully wrapped than others but really anyone with some tape and paper can wrap a package or deliver an opinion about wine.

Give a monkey a typewriter…. and he will be able to wrap Christmas gifts better than me.


The value in Jamie Goode’s expertise comes in what’s inside the package. There his readers can unpack his years of observations and experience, following winemakers and wine regions as they emerge and evolve, gaining from him a perspective and tools that will ultimately help them get more pleasure out of finding and drinking new wines.

The value in anyone’s opinion peters out when the subjectivity of taste comes in. What might be a fabulous wine to one person could be just “meh” or even downright awful to another. Wine drinkers do not need wine experts to tell them what is good. Instead, show us why you think its good.

Show us the story behind the wine. Show us the care in the vineyard or winery that shaped the wine’s journey from grape to glass. Show us where this fits in the big picture of the world of wine and maybe, just maybe, our opinion of the wine’s greatness will eventually fall in line with the “better” expert opinion.

Show, don’t tell.

Because wine writers are tools, not pontiffs.

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A Magnitude of Triviality

I greatly respect Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator. I love his writing style, particularly his Making Sense series of books, where he makes frequent use of anecdote and relatable metaphors to explain wine concepts. It’s a plain spoken style that I often try to emulate in my own writings and teachings on wine. But Matt Kramer is also a wine critic and as such is prone to the same navel-gazing and self justification for their existence that all critics indulge themselves in from time to time. The most recent example comes from his explanation of the difference between professional wine critics like him and mere wine loving folks. For Kramer, it was about differences in magnitude.

Think of it this way. You’ve seen a certain movie a dozen times, then two dozen times. You know it intimately. You begin to notice things you missed the first time or two. Then, after the tenth time, small elements begin to loom ever larger. By the twentieth time, that effect gets magnified yet more.

This is the critic’s perspective. After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it’s not that you’re bored (although that’s surely possible). Rather, it’s that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

The shorthand summary of this quote and the article is that wine critics are important because they taste so much and therefore can pick out the minute differences in wine that most people often do not. While this is undoubtedly true and Kramer’s logic is quite sound, it does beg the question that if the “magnitude of difference” between a 95 point wine and a 94 point wine is derived from these minute differences that only become apparent when awash in a sea of peers–then what’s the value of that to regular consumers? If they’re not going to be able to pick up on these subtle differences, then why would they care if those notes are in a 95 point wine but not a 94 points wine?

The point where a “magnitude of difference” become a “magnitude of triviality”

It’s okay to look at wine scores as a reference point. When you are a consumer, looking at a literal wall of wine in front of you, it can be comforting seeing a sign that says “95 points! Wine Spectator” or “94 points! Beverage Dynamics”. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that because someone thinks this highly rated wine is good it must be a “good wine.” But you have to remember that while it may be a “good bottle”, that doesn’t mean that it is a “good wine” for you.

It’s important to understand that Kramer’s “Magnitude of Difference” between a critic and someone like you cuts both ways. All the knowledge that he’s acquired, all the bottles that he’s tasted has shaped his palate to where it is. Yes, he will certainly taste and pick up on things in the wine that you won’t but that also means that you will taste things and focus on aspects of the wine in ways that he won’t. Your “magnitude of triviality” is different and that matters a lot when you consider that you are the one that is ultimately consuming (after likely paying for) the wine.

This is why you should always fall back on yourself, your palate and what gives you pleasure as the final arbitrator of what is “good”. I don’t care if someone is telling you this is one of the greatest bottles of all time, from an amazing vintage and a prestigious estate with critics falling over themselves to award it 100 points. If that bottle doesn’t give you pleasure then, for you, its not really a “good wine”.

It’s just a wine that other people liked.

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