We interview a series of wine marketeers, PRs and producers who craft and communicate the stories which move grapes from the winery to the consumer’s glass. In the UK, the people who do this important job are predominantly female, who are predominantly working in small teams or as freelancers. We wanted to champion these fellow small teams and the networks of freelancers who are working harder than ever behind the scenes to keep the cogs of the wine industry whirring. We hope you enjoy this series of interviews.

We interviewed Melanie Jappy, Bafta-nominated producer of The Wine Show and Director of Programming at Infinity Media. You’ve probably never heard of her – despite the fact that Melanie has been responsible for discovering some of the most prized talent on British lifestyle television. Melanie got her TV ‘big break’ in 1991 as a contestant on the second ever season of Masterchef (with Lloyd Grossman, no less!). When she parted ways with her career in commercial property law, she approached the producer of Masterchef hoping he could help to get her a job as a food writer. Instead, he gave her a gig as production coordinator on Masterchef. Eight years later, she was producing the whole program. The rest, as they say, is history. Probably the most influential woman in the wine trade, Melanie talks about the launch of TWS Creative, how The Wine Show almost never got made, Cameron Diaz and reframing the way we approach wine marketing.

You’ve singlehandedly reinvigorated wine on TV. Before you created The Wine Show, people had all but given up, bar the shopping recommendations on Saturday Kitchen and other similar shows. But what was it that made you want to make The Wine Show?

The Wine Show came about simply because somebody asked me. Though, famously in our team now, my first response when I got this call was ‘that’ll never work’. There was silence on the other end of the line and they said, ‘well, why? Food is everywhere, wine is just as popular.’ But I absolutely knew at that point that there was one very good reason: a good glass of wine looks exactly the same as a bad glass of wine. You can’t tell until you taste it. Food appeals to the lizard brain. You see it and you start to salivate. Wine doesn’t have that affect. It’s a very sensory issue – and that’s why I initially said no.

So what made you change your mind?

There was some precedent for success [making wine television], but certainly not enough to make me want to do it. But they asked me to think about it so I went away and – of course – I had this epiphany moment in the shower. I’d previously developed and worked on Who Do You Think You Are. That show had also famously been initially dismissed by my boss at the BBC.

But as with all these things, it’s all about the execution.

The formula seems simple when you look at the finished product. With genealogy, we brought in celebrities, had them tell their personal stories and go on a revelatory journey. Then, in the background, we layered in how their story in the micro-sense fits into the macro history of the UK.

So in that epiphany, I thought – what if you treat wine as the MacGuffin? That was the moment that I realised it could work. It was never going to be about the grapes and the soil type and things like that. It had to be about how wine tells the story of who we are. So, we made the show speculatively – we made it before we sold it – and it’s now sold in 26 territories around the world which equates to about 106 countries. The reach is something like 80 million people.

What inspired the format (which works so well) of choosing presenters who like wine but aren’t wine professionals, with the experts as ’seasoning’, if you will?

Putting celebrities front and centre is 100% about commerciality. To punch through the noise and achieve commercial success you have to have big names – and the more obscure the subject, the bigger the name has to be. In this type of [soft lifestyle] programming, there’s also been a move away from experts who may be didactic and pedagogic. It’s fine in some contexts – like some of the historians who can really bring their subject alive – but what really punches through is when you get Giles Coren and Sue Perkins immersing themselves in the world. I know a lot of people don’t like that dilution of expertise, but having someone who’s on their own journey to learn something is much more engaging. Then you also don’t have to deal with the awful thing of people who do know a lot having to ask questions which they know the answer to, which is always frustrating for experts.

One of my other biggest issues was that I couldn’t find the right ‘expert’. Much as I admire all the established wine TV presenters working on Saturday Kitchen and so on, I definitely wanted somebody fresh. We screen tested a lot of people and looked at lots of people online and then I saw this little video, a weird bloke in a bath of red wine. Within a minute I was googling how the hell I could find him. In the end I sent him a message on Twitter and I met him two days later. Three weeks later, we were filming with Joe Fattorini in Beaune.

Do you like wine?

Yes! I know a lot more about it than when I began this show and have a little collection of my own, about 100 bottles. It’s funny because I’m just about to say what I criticise other people for saying – I do like wine, but I don’t know much about it. One of the things I always find is that when you ask people, the first thing they say is ‘I don’t know much about it’. If you said to them ‘do you like cheese’, nobody would ever follow that up by saying ‘I don’t know much about it.’ And cheese is just as complicated and just as varied.

A very good point! It’s a fresh way of looking at the subject – is that influenced by your background outside of the wine trade? What’s it like to be a trade ‘outsider’ shaking things up and wielding such influence?

For better or worse, wine has been kept very close to this very expert group of people who’ve turned it into a mystery. Of course, much of it is mysterious – but it shouldn’t be exclusive. I think it’s a societal issue about wine peculiar to the UK. There’s been an enormous change in this country [since the 60s and 70s when wine first became prevalent], and yet we’re still a long way from people feeling comfortable about it. We need to try and unpick that. If ever I had a mission with [The Wine Show], it’s to try and make wine more joyous and inclusive. I think stories are the way to do that.

The topics and wines you feature on The Wine Show are incredibly varied. How do you come up with the ideas?

For the first series of The Wine Show I followed the Who Do You Think You Are model. We established big global, historical themes we wanted to cover: immigration, religion, industrialisation, war and so on. We stuck those themes on a board and worked backwards – if we wanted to tell a story about industrialisation using wine what is it?

So, for example, for immigration we settled on the Barossa Deutsch story – how the persecuted Lutherans left Germany and arrived in Barossa. They spoke this dialect until after WW1, and we explored with the Henschke family how winemaking held this frontier community together. The point is, we tell the global story of immigration and persecution long before we get to the wine. It’s the same approach for every single topic we tackle. The wine is the very last piece of the puzzle. We never start with this is a winemaker or specific wine we want to feature.

My other big thing is to always ask ‘what are we doing’. I don’t like people to be observers when on screen. I want them to be engaged and doing and involved. For the story of WW2, we visited the Loire. The story was about Monmousseau family who have been making wine for 300 years. The current Mr Monmousseau’s father transported people in wine barrels across the River Cher which demarked the border between Vichy and Free France. So, we decided to put Joe in a wine barrel. It was a way of getting the audience to understand what it felt like to be hammered into a wine barrel, how hot and frightened they must have been. From a TV perspective this is all quite normal as an approach. But I think so many people are trying to make wine interesting but are still starting with the wine – trying to tell people what it tastes like.

What do you think of current wine communications?

As I said above, our story-led approach is quite normal from a TV perspective.  But I think so many people are trying to make wine interesting but are still starting with the wine – trying to tell people what it tastes like.

The trade has sold wine the same way for centuries: put it in front of people, tell them how great it is, tell them how great it is again and hope they buy it and keep buying it. It doesn’t work anymore. [I want to help people understand that they’re] not competing with other wines. They’re competing with Baby Yoda, or who’s on Love Island this week. I want the trade to start thinking about the broader landscape of brands. When you’re competing for someone’s time, attention and money, you can’t just be thinking in terms of ‘is my wine better than that person’s wine’. It has to be about a bigger emotional message – why a person should engage with your brand over another. Wine brands and retailers don’t need to create more wine drinkers – they need to create fans.

If I hear one more wine producer talk about consumers, like they’re these dehumanised machines which inhale wine, I will scream. People who love wine are not just a homogenous body of ‘consumers’, they are people – they are sisters getting together, they are people going to parties, they are people in restaurants, they are hosts and hostesses. They are different things and different people – they are not consumers.

Was this the motivation behind rebranding The Wine Show Limited as TWS Creative? 

We think we can bring our skills as storytellers to the wine trade commercially. It comes back to people who love wine being more than just ‘consumers’; they are your audience. They want to be entertained. We can do that through advanced audience insights which help shape the creation of truly engaging content. I believe with the production expertise we bring and a solid commercial background, we’re offering something exceptional.

A great example of a brand-aware approach was Cameron Diaz’s ‘clean wine’ launch. The minute I saw it I thought ‘get the popcorn’ because I knew the wine world was going to go ballistic. Sure enough, they did. It’s utterly cynical and I hate it, but she’s tapping into a desire and a need. I think finding out what speaks to your audience about your brand is the key. Is it about being fun? Is it about being beautiful? Is it about being inspiring? Is it about being useful? All these things need to be distilled into an understanding of who are you speaking to, who your competitors are, and how you differentiate. The attitude shouldn’t be ‘how did Camel Valley sell their last wine’, it should be ‘how did Nike sell their latest training shoe’. Unfortunately, in the rarefied wine world, a lot of celebrity endorsements or sweet or uncomplicated wines are just seen as not good wines. It’s a bit like fashion journalists not liking Primark. Some people want Primark. Some people need Primark.

It’s also why we’re so focussed on audience insights. The way Diaz’s wines were launched was so focussed. It reminded me of a whisky project Diageo did last year. They spent £12,000 on targeted media advertising and sold 64,000 bottles of scotch. It’s an incredible, directly traceable return – and you can capture so much detail about that customer.