The showman - an interview with Joe Fattorini

Joe Fattorini, star of The Wine Show, is one of the wine world’s most accomplished communicators. He explains to Felicity Carter how he does it.

Joe Fattorini, The Wine Show
Joe Fattorini, The Wine Show

Joe Fattorini will do anything for the sake of a good story. Like go on a nudist tour to Mexico.

“It was a weird hippy bus tour,” he says. “There were bandits and scorpions.”

It was 1992 and the story turned out to be bigger than expected, because the tour was subjected to a gun fight on the way to Tijuana. “One of the group was so horrified she paid someone to airlift her away,” recalls Fattorini. “I threw up horrendously in the desert.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, he gets frustrated with people who say they want to be wine writers but who don’t want to take risks. Get him started on wine communication, and it turns out he has a lot to say. For example, his advice about how to look good during Zoom calls — prop your laptop on a six-pack wine box, as he does during the call with Meininger’s. It “stops the camera going up your nose”.

It’s the kind of detail that has made him an effective communicator, equally fluent in radio, print or television. He’s best known for his starring role on The Wine Show, sold to ITV in the UK, and Hulu and Ovation in the USA. When Stuart Heritage reviewed it for The Guardian, he called Fattorini “the Attenborough of Oddbins”.

Zigzag career

Fattorini didn’t start out in wine, or even journalism, but at the then Scottish Hotel School at the University of Strathclyde. And that wasn’t his first choice. “The army turned me down twice,” says Fattorini. The parachute regiment brigadier who interviewed him was so appalled by Fattorini that the two-page rejection letter was “a vicious character assassination. It was devastating.”

But was it true?

“They were entirely right,” he admits. “I would have been terrible in every way.”

Instead, Fattorini studied with sociologist Professor Roy Wood. After his studies, he also taught and wrote, including the world’s first textbook on selling and marketing wine in restaurants. “If I could make a fortune standing up and teaching, I would do it tomorrow.” Fattorini says he doesn’t teach by “rattling out the syllabus. I find a useful hook that gets people engaged.”

Fattorini’s big break came when he heard a colleague turn down a Radio Scotland interview. After the colleague left the room, Fattorini picked up the phone and redialled the last number. “They said, ‘hello, it’s the BBC’ and I said, ‘I believe you are looking for someone to talk about heritage tourism’. They asked, ‘are you an expert in heritage tourism?’ and I took a deep breath and said ‘yes’.”

He got the interview. “I went to the university bookshop, bought three books on heritage tourism and read them non-stop until 12 the next day,” he says. “I hold by the line that if you’ve read three books on any discrete area, you know more than 90 percent of people in the field.”

Fattorini says he did quite well, despite an interviewer known to be Scotland’s toughest. A listener called Katie Lander apparently agreed. She was a commissioning producer at Radio Scotland and got Fattorini to come on a popular morning show, MacAuley and Co, to talk about tourism. Next he went on and spoke about wine, then food, then the hotel business, “then they said, ‘could you come in every week?’ and I would go in every Tuesday and banter with Fred”. Fattorini appeared on the show for the next five years and his media career took off. “I’d started a PhD on share price behaviour, and I got a personal finance programme.” 

It’s Your Money ran for three years, which must mean Fattorini is a financial expert. “No, to this day I am a financial disaster,” he says, adding he failed the PhD. 

Clearly, he didn’t fail at radio. “I can talk about anything in the world reasonably competently,” he says. “It’s a good skill as a communicator, because if you can only talk competently about wine, I guarantee someone can do it better than you.”

The wine connection

Fattorini’s first wine job was filling in for the sommelier at The Angel at Hetton. Since then he’s been a director of sales at Bibendum, and managed national accounts for Matthew Clark, among other roles. More recently, he held the role of head of sales at Fields, Morris & Verdin (FMV), the wholesale arm of Berry Bros & Rudd.

He’s also written a wine column for Glasgow’s The Herald, done the WSET Diploma, and got part way through the Master of Wine (before his solicitor instructed him to stop). The study took a toll: “By the time I left the MW, I was bankrupt, jobless, my wife had left me and I was living in my mother’s spare room — but I recommend writers should at least try the MW, because it gives you good stories.”

Fattorini says writing about wine is easy. What’s more important is having plenty of general knowledge. “I can tell you a lot about Cahors, but so can everybody else,” he says. “But did you know that in Dante’s Inferno, Cahors is synonymous with usury in the same way that Sodom is synonymous with buggery? It’s because Cahors was the home of money lending in south-western France — so the people in the third ring of the seventh circle of hell are the people of Sodom and Cahors, because they were committing crimes against God.” Fattorini says he knows that because “I once spent the whole of Lent reading Dante’s Inferno. Most of what I talk about doesn’t come from wine books.”

Fattorini also understands storytelling; he discusses narrative arcs and technical issues like Freytag’s Pyramid — a model of dramatic structure — as easily as he talks about Cahors. Now, Fattorini and colleagues from The Wine Show are launching a production company called 28-50 Creative, which will offer high-level storytelling and marketing services. “With relationships to Infinity CML and The Talent Bank, it means we’ve a close relationship to people who are doing a lot of groundbreaking work in digital media, too.”

While Fattorini doesn’t claim that storytelling can transform a wine business, he does think it can lead to greater profitability — but only if applied with skill. “People say ‘a story will solve your problems’. It won’t.”

He gives the example of a theoretical winemaker, whose wines are a particular price. “He looks at his neighbours and their price is a bit higher. The point scores are the same, the critical appraisal is the same and the distribution is the same. Why is there a €5 price gap?” Fattorini says “value lives in the mind of the drinker, so our job is to create something that fills that gap”. He sees this as a marketing problem that demands a knowledge of the technical issues around storytelling, plus a plan to integrate it into the rest of the marketing. 

Unfortunately, not everybody has the courage to tell a good story. “Mostly people are not telling good stories because they’re scared of doing something different to everybody else, or showing too much of themselves,” he says. He suggests the way to get past that fear is to find something even bigger to be scared of, like the financial risk of being just another me-too brand. “Tell me something dangerous, that has got some grit in the oyster, like ‘I risked everything to do this. I risked my marriage’. That’s getting to the heart of it.”

The story then has to slot into the overall marketing mix, starting with the label and website. “Are we doing this over social media, old-fashioned direct mail, or does the story need to be crafted for TV and radio?” 

After that, the story has to go out into the world. If it’s compelling enough, it can open unexpected doors. Like the time Fattorini was in Argentina and spent the evening soaking in a tub of red wine (Bonarda, for the record). “I thought, I’ll film this. I talked into the camera and uploaded it and, in the following ten years, 100 people watched it.” Almost 10 years to the day later, a producer called Melanie Jappy was scrolling through videos about wine, when she found Fattorini talking in the tub.

“Within two weeks, we were filming The Wine Show.”

Felicity Carter

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