Interview with Joe Fattorini

In August of 2016 I interviewed Joe Fattorini, raconteur extraordinaire, and host of wildly popular iTV series, The Wine Show, alongside Amelia Singer, Matthew Rhys, and Matthew Goode, at Digital Catapult, in London’s Knowledge Quarters. 

We covered his career, his early curiosity on the history of wine, and how a MPhil in Food and Religion, and decades of working in the wine trade informs the show’s episodes.

We also discussed how the wine trade landscape is changing rapidly thanks to the digital economy.  How mobile changes the end game and virtual tastings could become the norm for producers from far flung regions that want to export.

The Wine Show broke records in viewership for wine television, as the medium had not to date delivered entertainment and education, with knowledgeable hosts and star power in the same show, on this complex, often hermetic, and fascinating topic.

History, geography, economics of wine production and trade are weaved seamlessly through the show’s narrative structure that takes the hosts to 11 countries and 5 continents to reveal the intricacies of this ancient beverage that has defined the history of humankind. 

MP:  How did you start in the wine business? How your interest in wine developed?

JF:  That is very true that when you are at school, in a career’s advisor meeting, they don’t have a sheet in front of you that says, “be a wine television presenter”, it’s not a thing that you set out to go and do. But even at school, I was nearly thrown out of school for having a wine tasting in my room. My tutor came in and I remember offering him a drink because I thought, well, if I am going to be expelled… (laughter).

MP:  You organized a wine tasting for your colleagues? (we are still laughing)

JF:  I actually had a book confiscated when I was 11 years old, and the priests, it was a Catholic school, they thought it was very unsuitable for a boy to have a book about wine at 11. At that early age I was very keen.

But I think I was 16 or 17, and I am having this wine tasting in my room and the priest walked in and I thought “I’m getting expelled”. So, I decided, I’ll go out glorious. I offered him a drink, “Would you like a drink? Maybe before you expel me?”, and he said “no, no, no, that’s very kind and never mention this again” and he said we were so civilised the way we were drinking, which was against the rules, but he said “you were being civilised you’re doing it in the right way” and in a way that was very useful because The Wine Show is not about sitting around drinking, and my career is not sitting around drinking, it’s all the interesting stuff, all the background and the stories and where does it come from, who makes it, what is the history of that place.

MP:  That’s what I absolutely love about The Wine Show, and I think that is why you had 4.8 million viewers in the UK in the first season.

JF:  Yes, in the UK, we’ve had around 4.8 million viewers, sort of a big reach, and we have been very impressed, indeed been really pleased with the sort of people who watch it, because on the whole people who watch it overwhelmingly love it.    

MP:  Right, because viewers are on social media, I see people are watching the show and tasting a similar wine at home, and posting, tagging, The Wine Show.

JF:  Yes, there has been really a lot of interaction, and also we found our audiences on the whole are slightly more female, and are slightly younger than the population at large, but actually we do have absolutely everybody, and I have these messages from elderly people in their 80s, who are enjoying watching it, and people who are nineteen, twenty, they’re just out of college, and I have one follower in Wales, who sends me bottles of wine, he never spends more than four pounds, which I love.

MP:   I like the idea that it was really bringing together people around the history of wine, the cultures. You went to Israel, to Chile, to Moldova. Amelia Singer was in Australia. It was a world tour. The Matthews were all over in Europe: Italy, France, Portugal…

JF:  Indeed, it was a world tour, I took 36 flights making the show around the world.

When we started a lot of people asked, “how do you come up with those stories?”.  It is a television program made by TV people and one of the reasons why wine is never really done well on telly is that most people in TV don’t really get wine, and wine people have no idea how to make TV.

When I’ve seen pictures in the past of TV shows, really good interesting pictures by bright people, but they start on the basis we ought to go here, there, and everywhere. We didn’t start that way, we said we need to do a story about earthquakes and we need to look at money and how that influences or how wine reflects it, we need to go look at conflict zones like in Israel, and we need to look at how the collapse of communism has affected the wine trade and how the wine trade actually itself sometimes has brought about huge changes to the rest of the economy.

These are universal things, themes we can all relate to. What would be like if you woke up in the middle of the night and there was an earthquake? And we met my friend Derek in Chile, and he said, “I remember I ran out with a child under each arm and that the ground was flowing like sea waves”. Just after the earthquake happened he started growing grapes in this part of Chile.

If I was going to only speak about an earthquake, well,  that’s boring, the really interesting story is him standing there and saying he realized something happened in the garden, that is when he started this project to make wine and we can all relate to that, these are universal themes, we can fill in, “what would I do in those circumstances” whereas is much harder to say “what would I do if I had a vineyard and it was worth twenty million pounds”, that is fantasy.

MP:   You also had an episode where you went to a winery in Argentina where they bless the barrels, they do something spiritual to the wines in the cellar.

JF:  Yes, they play Gregorian chants in the cellar. I didn’t really believe in it, but again it is very important to show that, you can’t be very didactic and very academic, but they play Gregorian chants to the barrels, it was like a concert hall, they played music to the wine, the idea is it relaxes the wine, they use solar energy in the winery too.

MP:  Affects its molecules in some way? It makes sense if you think about it, we don’t know much about these things, at the Nano, molecular level.

JF:  It was one of those ideas, I suppose, and I said you know what, a thousand and one scientists will tell you that this is lunatic, but I quite liked it, anyway because it’s nice.

MP:  Yes, and the winery was just beautiful too. And then Matthew Rhys and Matthew Goode went to visit this other wine producer in Italy, that makes organic wines and biodynamic wines and she is a reference in the winemaking industry for biodynamic wines. I was delighted to see her and see her vineyard through the show.

JF:  Her name is Elisabetta Foradori. One of my co-presenters, Matthew Rhys, he said at that time that if we think about it can be very scientific, it is the grapes and yes, the people, the weather makes a difference and the vintage is the soil influences and what you do the soil. It is pretty much where biodynamics comes in, you have the great varieties, Touriga, one unusual grape variety and it’s related to a few other unusual grape varieties, which only really grow in that part of the world.

But human influence is very powerful and Elisabetta, she’s a very beautiful person and she’s very beautiful, and the wines reflect her personality a great deal, she is a reflective, rather spiritual person, and the wines have a restraint and is not too hyperbolic to say that they actually reflect that. I think if one is a more rambunctious and loud and shouty type, one would make wines in a loud, shouty style. She makes these wines that are graceful. 

I was in New York and went to have dinner with Matthew Rhys and we walked into this restaurant, and what was the first thing we saw on the wine list? Her wines. And we said we have to order it, it is a sign of the biodynamic gods.

MP:  What’s in store now for The Wine Show? You are going to be distributed in a hundred and twenty-six countries. And I hear the Matthews are going to be in Australia next week promoting it?

JF:  Yes, they are going to be in Australia next week. The way we made the show is very unusual, it was not commissioned – nobody would have commissioned it – in a sense is too mad an idea, to try to make a wine television program, in fact there was a TV show, a sitcom, and there was a joke about it “you know, well, I’d love to make a wine TV show”.

What we had to do, we had to raise capital.  The team and I, I was only tangentially involved. We went and pitched the show to investors, with little clips.

Now we’ve got to make that back for our investors and so the show started in the UK. I went to a very smart TV festival in Cannes, and we sold it around the world and there’s a whole series of agreements to start in the United States, on Hulu, and then after that it’s Australia, and the nice thing about working with Matthew and Matthew is the three of us.

They are very handsome, they’re very funny and they’re extraordinarily witty, and I’m none of those things – but I knew lots about wine. They were good friends before, I met them in the show and we just got on so nicely. And when the Matthews go to Australia people say, “I know you” and that buys us this instant audience and people really love it.

In the States is the same. These two charming British men drinking slightly too much. People love that. Some people might say “oh it is just two British guys getting a bit squiffy”, but in fact one ends up learning a lot about wine.  When we go to Israel or Santorini or Burgundy, and some never knew, had any idea that they made wine there, people go away knowing quite a bit more about wine. We are teaching people by stealth.

MP:  So, you’ve never imagined you would be doing this after you finished your studies?

JF:  Yes, I had of sort of a strange career. I wanted to be a soldier, Matthew Rhys too. Actually, we got started thinking we were going to be soldiers, but the army turned me down and I had no idea what to do and I became an academic and went back to university and I have the world’s most unusual and bizarre Master of Phil, on the relationship between food and religion which I did, and I love.

MP: I think it is wonderful subject, food and religion. You have published a couple of books on the topic.

JF:  Yes, but it is not very good when you are looking for a job, because employers, when you say, “I have a master’s degree on food and religion”, they look and say “Really? What you have that is useful for me?”, but then I taught Finance classes in a business school, and I was very lucky, my department allowed me to teach all these courses about cuisine and culture and aesthetics and philosophy and society and the great conflicts of French Structuralism of the 70s, and that has been immensely useful now as a presenter because you can sometimes bring a slightly slanted view, an academic view, and understand why people do that, with food and wine, in this particular way.

I then became a wine merchant, I’ve had this generous career as an academic, as a journalist, and then had too many children too quickly, we can never have too many, I had four children and needed a regular job so I joined the wine trade and then I was “discovered”, as they say, for The Wine Show, and there’s a video of me on YouTube in a wine bath. (laughter)

MP:  I saw that, it is quite fashionable now, sports people are doing that quite a bit and there is this wonderful place in France, Caudalie. It is supposed to be really good for you, for your skin.

JF:  Yes, I had that unusual experience of being smeared with honey and grape seeds, and had this video for 12 years, nobody in 12 years had seen it, and the producer saw this and that’s about it. I was running a very large wine sales team in London, actually we were looking after very smart restaurants, Heston Blumenthal, the Savoy, the Dorchester, and some around here. And I gave all that up. I said, this is a great opportunity, it only comes once in a lifetime.

MP: And you have the sponsorship of Aldi?

JF: We have several commercial partners.

MP:  It is an interesting revenue model. Nowadays everything is much easier in terms of distribution.

JF:  Absolutely, this it was one of the great conflicts, one of the things that has held wine broadcasting back is that if you are to talk about wine in the media, you have to divorce yourself from any sense of being close to wine commercially.

MP:  But think there is this, right, that we will see more and more, people are at home and they want to taste the wines that are being presented. It is nice that people watching can go and buy a wine from a region that you presented in the show.

JF:  Sure, they can get wines from Aldi and we also have it available through our website where we can point people where they can go and get the wines that were presented in the show.       

MP:  Some of the wineries that participated in the show? You are doing affiliated marketing?

JF:  Actually, we are working with Amazon in the UK. ITV put a deal together with Aldi, they wanted to sponsor the show. As a wine merchant one of the most interesting things is watching the wine trade landscape, it is changing dramatically in the UK.

MP:  What has changed in the last few years? In terms of digital too. You have been on the trade for many years. I would love to hear what you have to say.

JF:  Yes, digital has hugely transformed the industry, I give you an example. I was writing a column on wine for the International Herald in Scotland for 14 years, and in that period of time lots had changed. When I wrote my last column, I wanted to explain how much the wine trade had changed.

When I finished writing my column there was an Australian wine producer that was producing as much wine as Australia as a whole, what the entire country made when I had started writing my column.

Within less than a decade and a half the entire wine industry in Australia had this huge transformation. Now the big change has been not in producer countries but in consumer countries like in the UK.

When I joined the business you had dozens, hundreds, of small merchants, and middle size agencies, all competing for people and it was all quite gentlemanly and there were reasonably sized margins, so lots of people could make a living, and now there is a huge consolidation of different companies so there are fewer bigger and bigger businesses bringing wine in because there just isn’t the money, and petrol costs is a really big thing for one, it is a businesses where you’re moving very heavy boxes around, so if petrol prices go up a little bit suddenly your profits are gone.

Digitally the wine business took a while to catch up with digital, but it is transforming it.

One the most interesting things is that winemakers used to fly around the world to go and present their wines. Now one can put a big screen and have tastings in seven different countries simultaneously.

A wine producer can have a live new release of his Chianti classic. It is a bit like a Eurovision contest.

Hello New Delhi, are you there? It is 2 am there, and 5 pm somewhere. But the winemaker took us through all his wines. And around the world two hundred and fifty people were able to participate in a new launch and taste, with the winemaker and the consultant, and talk to each other in real time, and talk much more knowledgeably about the wines.

We now see Periscope tastings, where a winemaker will do a live Periscope or Facebook Live tasting. And wine merchants will tell their staff “you get 20 minutes off to watch our producer in Chile and learn about these wines”. That has been quite transformative.

MP: What about e-commerce? People are shopping a lot online. There was exponential growth there, in the last five years.

JF: I think the trend continues, yet there is still something that nobody covered about The Wine Show, is that in the first five minutes, if you ordered the wines through Amazon, you could have the wines delivered by the time the program finished, we have one-hour delivery for certain products.

MP: That is right, Amazon Prime.

JF: And a good friend of mine who’s a project manager, made a lovely experiment. He set himself a challenge, that within 24 hours he could set up an e-commerce delivery site for wine using only a mobile phone and credit card and he did it. He made a test purchase, it was for bottle Blue Nun at about £28 pounds.

He managed to find a partner to do the fulfillment, he used Squarespace to set up the thing, he didn’t touch a laptop the whole time.  It’s just a matter of time before you start stripping out lots of the traditional models. Why would you go to a shop when you can have someone delivering your wine in under an hour?

This is changing the retail landscape and now shops need to be providing a real experience. Offer to try wines with Enomatic machines, for example. Also, big data, data gathering, you know people say the game Angry Birds is gathering so much data. They’re finding out you what kind of things do you like, and what other things they tend to correlate with you. We now can know about people who live in West London and can target them with the right wine ranges.

Interview produced, transcribed, and edited by Maya Plentz Fagundes.

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