Italy’s Finest: Talking Wine & Entrepreneurship With Top Chef Fabio Viviani

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Fabio Viviani is a stunning example of someone who took the American dream and crushed it. So hard in fact, that he did it twice. After losing a substantial life savings shortly after arriving in America, he turned around and built $65 million dollar restaurant empire. Fabio’s perseverance and vivacious personality made him a sought after contestant for Top Chef, but he’s one reality show star that you won’t see fading into oblivion anytime soon!

With a crazy schedule that included an appearance on Good Morning America the day before, Fabio and I were able to squeeze in a chat in celebration of the launch of the Fabio Viviani Wine Collection, which includes a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red and white Signature Blend.

I couldn’t resist asking Fabio about his advice for wannabe entrepreneurs and his thoughts living in America, in addition to hearing all about the wine. Read on for some of the best no-BS entrepreneurial advice I’ve ever been received.

On America

Me: Fabio! Thank you so much for the chat today, I’m honored to be able to speak with you. I know you came to the US in your late twenties after becoming a successful restauranteur in Florence, Italy.

What was it about being in the US that made you stay?

Fabio: I’m very happy here in the US, I’m killing it. I’m following a goal here and not money. I always say that while the path might change, the goal stays the same. I found America to have a lot more possibility and opportunity. In Italy, I was making more than 37 times the average yearly income, but I wasn’t 37 times happier because the challenge just wasn’t there for me anymore.

Me: I love that. I’m Canadian, and I can definitely say this has been a land of opportunity for me! We’ll chat more about business later, but for now tell me about your wine.

On Wine

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I love that Fabio Vivianni wines focus on food pairing, and that your website provides recipe suggestions for each bottle.

What pushed you to start making wine?

Fabio: In Italy, I grew up learning to enjoy wine. It’s part of my culture and it made sense with my knowledge, connections, and resources to create my own wine. I could have taken the easy approach by finding another wine company and endorsing their wine, but then I would have nothing to do with the creation. It was important to me to create my own wine, choose the grapes, and spend time walking the vineyards.

Me: In Italy, wine is truly meant to be enjoyed with food. Here in America, with our happy hours, we tend to drink it on its own.  What are your thoughts on this?

At the end of the day, wine is meant to be drunk. As long as you drink it you fulfill the purpose of wine. Wine is like grown up grape juice, in Italy you serve it spiked. I think they sell more wine than water! It’s more of a recreational drink in America, a social lubricant, but that’s not a big deal. Different strokes for different folks!

Me: How did you craft your wines with Americans in mind?

Fabio: In Italy it has to be one scenario, in America it’s different. In Italy, wine is mostly drunk with food, so it must be more robust or the food is going to kill the flavor. In America, with Fabio Viviani Wine Collection we needed to craft a wine that will be the best quality for its price, and fit the purpose of having wine without a meal. We have to make sure that it’s drinkable, and easy to understand. Our Cabernet is balanced for either purpose, with good tannins in it, good quality and aromas.

Me: Tell me a little about where your grapes come from, and the flavors in Fabio Viviani Wine Collection?

Fabio: We had a certain flavor in our mind, and then we did reverse engineering to create it. We went shopping for the grapes to create the flavor.

Our grapes are sourced from California. In Italy, you don’t need to spend $80 on a bottle for a good glass of wine. I felt it was important for my wine to be affordable [Fabio Viviani wines retail for around $14.99 per bottle]. The Cabernet is amazing with undertones of vanilla, and the Chardonnay is buttery but also with bright fruit. We balanced the buttery flavor because the reality is that some people find it too intense feels like popcorn with butter so it’s the best of both worlds.

Our customers are educated in wine, but they do not need to spend $50 to enjoy a bottle. It’s nice to save something for special occasions.

Me: Which of your wines is your personal favorite? 

Fabio: My favorite is the Signature White Blend. It has five different grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Muscato.  It’s the perfect mix of sweetness, floral noted and acidity. [Jill: this was my favorite too!]

Me: Since we love to drink wine before dinner here in America, what are some appetizers or bar foods that you would suggest for pairing?

Fabio: Any of my wines are perfect to serve with cheeses, small bites, or any appetizer that you can share. For happy hours, I prefer things on a stick, or finger food that is easy to eat with your free hand. This way, you can socialize, eat and drink without looking clustered!

Me: I get asked all the time if I can recommend restaurants in Florence, which are your favorites?

Fabio: It’s too hard to answer, there are so many good restaurants! My advice is to go off the beaten path, outside of the touristy areas. Don’t Yelp, walk and try places! Of course, there are the well-known traveler favorites, but try them once and then get out and explore!

Me: You worked hard to support your family from an incredibly early age in Italy, working your way up to becoming a restaurant owner. Shortly after you ended up in America, you lost your life savings to a family debt but recovered to build an even bigger empire. 

What is your advice to people who want to be entrepreneurs?

Fabio: There is no magic formula to being a good entrepreneur. If you could just put a pixie dust on your head and become a millionaire, it would be too easy. Its pure work ethic and stamina, consistency, and hard fricken work. After I moved to America I had seven digit debt, and I lost my business. I had no documents, nothing. But I decided to stay, and I figured it out – now I have 1200 employees and a $65 million business, because I worked my ass off.

If you are hungry to become an entrepreneur, you’re doing yourself a disservice not to try.  People prefer the comfort of corporate jobs to the discomfort of what will pay off later. People get “my life doesn’t suck” syndrome. But being a successful entrepreneur is not for everyone, everyone is allowed to have it but it ain’t for everyone. It’s hard fricken work.

Me: You’ve found your passion in life, which seems to be not only food, but building amazing businesses and creating opportunities.

Do you have advice for people who want to be entrepreneurs, but don’t have any good ideas yet?

Fabio: Maybe 1% of people are going to figure out the answer to that question. For you, I am assuming, writing broadcasting, and public relations is what you are passionate about. My advice is to go work for someone who you want to be like for sh*tty pay; just find a mentor and jump. With a 40 hour a week job in corporate America, most people spend their lives in an industry that doesn’t belong to them. Do that 40 hour week in an industry or job with skills that are aligned with your dream.

For example, wanna-be actors who are servers. Go work for a production company or in the movie industry and at least you are closer to the dream and you are around people who know the business. Align yourself for where you want to be in life.

Some of my biggest critics have been folks who work 50 hours a week for someone else their whole life and speak one language. At this point to me, 50 hours a week is a hobby.

Me: That’s fantastic advice. Where can people go to learn more about your business approach, and get advice?

Fabio: If you want a laugh, head over to my website Know How Leadership Academy and read my free guide to time management. I’ll be launching courses here in January.

Thanks for your time Fabio!

I also recommend checking out Fabio’s interview with podcaster Lewis Howes for a deeper dive into his business values and advice. Check out Fabio’s cookbooks, particularly “Skinny Country” packed with tips on how to create flavorful meals without extra calories.

Fabio Viviani Wine Collection can be purchased online, or at Safeway locations throughout the Bay Area. It will be available at Winebow locations in IL, WN, and MV in mid-January as well as at Robins Cellars in VA, and Athens in TN.

What do you think of Fabio’s entrepreneurial advice?

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11 thoughts on “Italy’s Finest: Talking Wine & Entrepreneurship With Top Chef Fabio Viviani

  1. Fabio is actually a pretty big presence here in Chicago with his restaurants. I’m not the biggest pasta person (though I do love Italian flavors) but wine? I can do 😀
    The 50 hours a week being a hobby thing… guess I’ve got a lot of work to do! Sleep is just about my only “hobby” to speak of, by that metric.
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