Q&A: Joe Fattorini, IWSC Wine Communicator 2017, talks passion vs professionalism

Jo Gilbert

Presenter and writer Joe Fattorini has made a career out communicating about wine.

Having started out running his own pirate radio at the age of 17, he grafted for 15 years as a columnist for The Herald and lectured at a Glasgow business school before joining The Wine Show as wine extraordinaire for the TV masses.

Most recently, he’s been awarded the prestigious IWSC Wine Communicator of the Year 2017 title at Vinitaly, for his boundless on-screen enthusiasm and risk-taking to make wine relevant to a TV audience.

But talking in a way that engages the man and woman on the street is still something that eludes vast swathes of marketing departments and even bona fide wine experts, he says. 

Taking a break from filming in the US, Fattorini spoke to Harpers about why passion isn’t sometimes enough, and why the trade needs to get serious about its communication skills.

 

 1. Hi Joe, tell us what makes a good wine communicator in your opinion and what’s your advice to the new generation doing the vital job of communicating to consumers?

My biggest piece of advice for anyone working in the communication arm of the trade is to think through your philosophy of communication.

There’s a tendency in the wine community for newcomers to look at the established people in the trade, and think “great, that’s how they do it, so I’m going to do the same”.

Communicators need to be thoughtful. We need to look around at other types of communication and make sure it’s relevant for the people were speaking to.

I was a lecturer at a business school in Glasgow for a number of years and I had to learn how to engage bored, hung over students on a rainy Wednesday morning in Scotland, which wasn’t easy I can tell you. The point is you have to adapt.

Also, get some qualifications. There are too many of what I call ‘gifted amateurs’ in the trade.

 

2. Who are these ‘gifted amateurs’?

To give you an example, at one time I worked for a wine company where I was the only chartered marketer in the business. It never ceases to astonish me how so many people have risen through the ranks and climbed to top marketing roles without taking the time to professionalise. It’s why roles tend to go to people outside of the trade.

There are a lot of tropes like that in this industry. Another is the number of people on LinkedIn calling themselves independent wine communicators. A lot of them aren’t particularly professional or particularly independent.

 

3. Hiring and training up people with the right skills in a constant battle for the trade. How is the imbalance redressed?

I wish I could say the onus is on employers to put their employers through the relevant qualifications. But this is a wafer-thin margin business, and any additional expense is hard to justify.

I’ve never had a qualification paid for by an employer. My WSET courses, marketing qualifications, my post grad in marketing and my masters degree were all paid for by me. It’s not that I had an endless pot of money to draw from. I had to stop my Masters of Wine course because I ran out of money.

The reality is that if you’re serious about professionalising your skillset, you’re going to have to pay for it.

 

4. What does the trade do well in terms of communicating to customers, and how can we learn?

I’ve found that the most successful communicators are sales people, and they are the least credited for their ability to communicate. If they don’t focus on what customers want, then they don’t get paid. The not-so-good communication comes from PR departments, marketers and writers.

People in sales roles tend to get the mystique of wine. They tend to find one or two intriguing pieces of information about a particular wine and they say, “I love this because…” or “here’s a funny story”.

We need to take a Fisher-Price approach. That’s what sales people do. Sales people tend to do what works, which is why they’re successful.

 

5. Is wine an industry that relies too much on passion?

I’ve recruited scores of people in my time, and in almost every CV I’ve read, the applicant starts with how passionate they are about wine. You’ve got to ask yourself “so what? Is that just because I like to drink nice wines?” Or do you have the motivation to invest in your career?

It would be easy for me to sit here and say passion is the most important thing and you should get writing and have a go with blog. But that’s an easy way of communicating.

In my case I could have shared my passion for wine by buying lots of Bordeaux en primeur, but I didn’t. The outcome is that I don’t have a great cellar, but I do have lots of qualifications and experience in being able to talk to people about wine.

 

6. What’s the next step from here?

Wine communication needs more boldness and bravery.

Wine merchants fail unless they are able to talk to ordinary people, who usually don’t spend more than 10 seconds looking at a bottle of wine before choosing what to buy.

I’m think of myself as a wine merchant who happens to write, and I write with the intention to sell.

  

7. What’s your biggest bugbear?

I hate the phrase “it’s all about what’s inside the bottle”. This is an unpopular viewpoint, but I find it incredibly boring.

There is so much personality around wine and there are so many amazing stories that exist outside of the bottle, but they just get forgotten about.

A lot of it is tied into the snobbery that still exists around wine.

The WSET diploma is great, and yes I would absolutely recommend anyone to go and do it. But what it tends to do is produce a bourgeois class who hold onto knowledge, and then dispense that knowledge based on what they think is relevant for people to know. 

But wine is bigger than that.

In a lot of ways, wine is a metaphor for what makes us human. It defines so much about our relationships, money, power and politics. Gordon Shepard’s book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, talks about how the mechanics of taste and how we are curiously attuned to discriminating aromas and flavours in wine. That’s something we all share, not just those who went to public school.

 

 

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