If you’re a fan of The Wine Show and found yourself thinking “that Joe Fattorini seems like a nice guy”, then I’m here to tell you that he really is! We met Joe at a tasting last year, had a chat about the show and hung out for a while. Friendly, chatty, knowledgeable and generous with his time – yep… definitely a nice guy.
Of course, that was his error as I set about stalking him on twitter and bouncing a few ideas off him which somehow ended up with him making the offer for me to email him a few questions to answer. I can only assume he saw this as a cheaper alternative to taking out a restraining order. Anyway, such was the quality of his answers I’ve decided to spin them out over the course of five newsletters.
In our last four newsletters we asked for his pointers about hunting down the best value in 2018, we tackled the contentious issue of natural wine, how you can get the very best out of your wine and Joe’s biggest gripe with wine merchants. In this edition we talk about avoiding coded wine speak…
Here at BinTwo we try really hard to avoid using wine-bore jargon in the way we describe our wines. But we’re not immune to the odd “pencil shavings” slipping into our notes and sometimes I fear I may describe things too plainly. I know we could do better. Any top tips on striking the right balance between describing wines credibly but in a user-friendly way?
You SHOULD use pencil shavings in your tasting notes. Especially if it actually smells of pencil shavings. I had a Crozes Hermitage at a restaurant (Blandford Comptoir- owned by super-sommelier Xavier Rousset MS) last week that absolutely reeked of black olives. You need to highlight these things. But… when you ask people what they like about a wine they pretty much never say “well, I like a wine that smells of pencil shavings and black olive”. They say things like “I like a big wine” or “a smooth wine” or “zesty wines”.
Texture matters much more than aroma for most people when they’re thinking of preference. I like to see how I can expand my lexicon of textures. “Velveteen” “sandpaper tannins” “lissom”. Also it’s much more reliable. People are consistent in describing textures. But our ability to consistently name smells is much less reliable. It doesn’t mean we’re bad tasters.
There’s a fabulous new study by Asifa Majid at Raboud University in the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe at Lund University in Sweden. They did work with a hunter gatherer trip called the Jahai in Malaysia. The found the Jahai could consistently name aromas accurately. But an agrarian group called the Semelai with a similar language nearby struggled. Much like people in the West. It seems like we lost the ability to make close assessments of smell when we started farming.
That’s the last of our “Better Ask Joe” series and I’m hugely grateful to him for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts. I can’t help but feel that his excellent answers were deserving of far better questions. The lessons I’m taking away are:
1. Use terms and language that customers can easily relate to.
2. Match our level of “wine enthusiasm” to that of the customer in front of us.
3. Sell our wines with a genuine personal promise that we think this particular wine is right for the occasion the customer has described to us.
4. Natural wine – confirms my thinking that they can be great but are often awful. I think you deserve a better level of assurance that it’s all going to be alright when you hand over your money.
5. In the context of BREXIT and a tough 2017 harvest we’re going to have to work harder at sourcing great value wines for you. Luckily we enjoy that bit!
From our fourth edition of 2018:
Obviously at BinTwo we’re generally awesome in every way (ahem). But what would you tell our customers they should expect from us as a good independent wine merchant? And, put another way, what’s your biggest gripe with wine shops? (Careful now, Joe).
All wine merchants – and I’ve been one since the early 1990’s – have one HUGE problem. We love wine. We live wine. Wine runs through our veins almost as literally as it does metaphorically. And the same is true of some of our customers. But… there are an awful lot people who just want a nice drink. Most people just want a lovely drink. And wine nuts like us really struggle to understand that. Most people are not as naturally as enthused with wine as we are. Great merchants take a bit of time to understand their customers’ “enthusiasm level” and tailor their advice accordingly. It’s a bit like selling a car. Enthusiasts want to know what the horsepower and torque is. In the same way we want to know what sort of oak wine was fermented in. But a lot of valuable and brilliant customers want to know if the car comes in metallic blue and will still look good in a year. Just like some wine customers want to know if it goes with quiche and their boyfriend will like it. It takes a bit of empathy to get that balance right. Empathy. That’s the word. That’s what good wine merchants need.
Joe’s response to this question really struck a chord with me. As long term followers may recall, we sort of fell into the wine trade 5 years ago so we had to compensate for our relative lack of experience and knowledge. I think we’ve done that by speaking to people in plain English at their “wine level” – frankly we had little other choice in the early days.
We found that people responded really well – often with a palpable sense of relief. For some of our customers I think they’ve liked the sense that we’re on the learning journey too. I trust you all to let me know if we start losing sight of our roots!
It’s driven my recruiting decisions too. I always look for people who know how to look after other people and make them feel comfortable. It could be because we’re a hybrid merchant/bar, or it could be because we’re in Padstow. But those traits seem to be much more important than their wine knowledge. We can teach staff about wine but it’s hard to teach people to be nice, friendly and approachable.
From our third edition of 2018:
Even in spite of the general tomfoolery that some of us routinely display, our customers really do seem to trust us to help guide them to a great wine that they’re likely to enjoy (thank goodness for Kate and the rest of the team). What tips would you offer our customers to help them get the very best out of their wine when drinking at home?
Can I give you a weird one? It’s something that may help you guide people as much and people be guided. One of the great myths – and I absolutely believe this – is that people are on a quest to find the finest, grandest, greatest value-for-money wine they can. Actually, I think people are far more motivated by a fear of disappointment than a determination to maximise pleasure. Great tasting notes, analysis and food matching don’t help people in those circumstances. What really matters is a personal promise, a solemn oath that the human being in front of you endorses this choice. And that it’s right for the occasion. We match wine to occasion more than anything. Am I relaxing with my partner with this? Impressing a friend? Looking for a gastronomic treat? Seeking adventure? What’s really helpful is for someone – like you and your team –to say “in those circumstance, this is what I would do”. That really makes a difference.
Wise words from Joe. We completely buy into the concept of the “personal promise – a solemn oath” philosophy. It underpins the way we buy all of our wines – do we like them? Can we all get behind them? There’s no “padding” on our shelves – nothing bought in bulk even if the wine was a bit average but the price was right. No “manager’s special” against which the team have sales targets. Rather our philosphy is summed up by our Wines We Love approach. We give free rein to one of the team and ask them to pick a wine they love then write a bit about it so we can share it with you and give you an honest pointer. Authenticity is the word that has been rattling around in my head – that’s what I hope sets us apart.
From our second edition of 2018:
Natural wine – I’m deeply sceptical. Champions of natural wine say that it is the purest expression of the grape. I say a raw potato might be the purest expression of a spud but development over time has proven to my satisfaction that it tastes better when it’s baked and slathered in butter! Am I missing something? Am I a philistine? Guide me wise one…
“Some of the loveliest bottles I’ve had have been natural wines. And unquestionably most of the worst wines I’ve ever had have been natural wines. And that’s their problem. And their charm. If you’re an enthusiast – or at least a particular sort of enthusiast – there’s a great excitement about finding one of those magic wine moments. And when natural wine is good it’s quite extraordinarily good. But most of us want a basic level of assurance that a bottle of wine you’ve spent a half decent sum of money on isn’t going to take like a cross between horse urine and cider vinegar. And natural wine often can’t give you that assurance. I don’t belong to that sort of fundamentalist sect that necessarily believes that because it’s natural it’s good. And what really infuriates me is when people say, “you just don’t understand it”. Of course, I do you complete clown. It just tastes like I’ve been sick in my mouth.”
Unsurprisingly Joe puts it much better than me. He’s summed up nicely why I’ve found it hard to get behind natural wines in a big way. It’s just too much of a gamble for me to ask you to take when you’re spending a reasonable chunk of money with us. That variation from one bottle to the next, often variation in quality between bottles in the same case of six, is just a bit too much uncertainty for my liking. Biodynamic wines however… now that’s a different matter all together! But what does biodynamic even mean? Read more…
From our first edition of 2018:
Thanks for joining us, Joe. 2017 saw the double whammy of an historically poor harvest in most of Europe and the fall of the pound following BREXIT. We’re now seeing the associated price increases flow through from suppliers. We love a “new find” at BinTwo and relish getting behind wines from less well known origins. Any top tips on where we should look to find great value, interesting wines in 2018?
“This is an interesting one. It’s not a fashionable view, but I think the poor harvest is a bigger issue than the value of the pound. Volumes in 2017 are down 30%, 40%… more in some places. It was an extraordinary vintage. And so early too. I was meeting producers last year who’d harvested in July and August rather than September. That will push up prices, but more importantly, push us all into new regions.
The Pound feels low, and is lower than we’ve been used to it. But it’s not much lower than the average value against the Euro between 2010 and 2014. But the duty escalator and coupled with the rising pound between 2014 to 2016 means we’ve really felt the return to a that lower level with a serious bump. I blame government tax policy more than Brexit for that pain. What really matters is finding interesting wines now.
My gut feel is that Eastern Europe and Australia are two early winners. Those semi-aromatic whites like Furmint blends from Slovenia or straight Furmints from Hungary. New lighter and fresher whites and tamer premium reds from Australia too, filling in the gaps left by Chianti Classico or Macon where vintages have been rough. I suspect varieties to look out for are Verdejo, Vermentino, Bobal and all sorts from Aus. There are some great Fianos and fresh Chardonnays and I loved the different styles of Shiraz at the recent Australia Day Tastings in London.”
Footnote: we took this advice to heart at this year’s tastings and have some cracking finds heading to the BinTwo shelves including some knock-out (and great value) wines from Australia. Watch this space..