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Despite An Alcohol Monopoly, Stockholm's Wine Scene Is Better Than Ever

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Painted bright red or blue, hand-carved wooden Dala horses symbolize the Swedish folk heritage of the city of Falun. They’re sold all over the country; tourists often pick them up as souvenirs. Arguably a more influential vestige of Falun’s history, with ramifications across Sweden to this day, however, is the retail alcohol monopoly system called Systembolaget.

In the 1700s, Falun became Sweden’s second largest city as it grew to support the neighboring copper mine industry. By the mid-1800s, the local government realized its inhabitants, primarily men, had developed alcohol abuse problems. Around this same time in America, the temperance movement gained traction. Rather than ban alcohol completely, like America’s eventual, failed Prohibition experiment, Falun’s government created a state-run alcohol company to promote responsible sales and reduce the profit motive; the concept eventually spread to all of Sweden.

Today, Big Brother ‘Bolaget, a government entity, controls all retail sales of alcohol over 3.5 percent. In restaurant and bars, alcohol can be sold for immediate consumption, but cannot be taken home. An important note: the current monopoly pertains solely to the retail sector. Systembolaget buys from importers who are not subject to a monopoly. And importers are allowed to sell directly to on-premise accounts at restaurants and bars, a key provision.

(While beyond the scope of this article, the history of the monopoly’s evolution is interesting. It included attempts at rationing, quotas, banning sales to unemployed people and women, and a major corruption scandal.)

What does a monopoly system mean? Claiming the purchasing power for an entire country’s 400 retail stores makes that entity one of the largest buyers of alcohol in the world. And with volume purchasing comes price bargaining power, but at what cost to diversity of wine products in the marketplace ? Can citizens only select from large brands capable of supplying the needs of 8 million people (not literally, of course) and filling orders on demand? In other words, does that small producer of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir making only 3000 cases of wine each year, stand a chance of entering this market?

 

 

I visited Stockholm in June and polled the Swedes I encountered about their system. Surprisingly few criticisms were aired, especially from those outside the alcohol industry. Many believed Systembolaget to be a good and beneficent authority. I visited a store in a country-ish town, and, not unsurprisingly, the wine selection was limited to volume brands, boxed wines, and a lot of Amarone (apparently Swedes have a thing for it). I was told that I’d find a better selection in the urban areas since buyers, logically, tailor inventory to the palates of the local population. (Read: more sophisticated city drinkers get more sophisticated choices.) Alas, I didn’t get a chance to visit one in person for an anecdotal assessment but I did visit a handful of wine bars with compelling lists. So how do smaller, offbeat, cutting edge, niche, or fine wine producers get a foot in the door?

For insights, I turned to Fredrik Lundberg, a ten-year veteran of the industry and sommelier at the popular Babette. I asked him what shifts he had witnessed in both consumer tastes and that of his colleagues, and whether an expanding diversity of importers played a role. “During my decade of experience in the Stockholm wine scene, I’ve seen a huge change, and most of it due to the increase in knowledge among sommeliers, in tandem with an increase in interest and knowledge among customers.” The influx of smaller, more “personally driven” importers helped move Stockholm towards a more interesting scene, he said. (Remember, importers can sell directly to on-premise buyers.) He also thought that social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook kept Swedes informed of developments and trends from the outside wine world.

 

It was apropos, then, that social media was the vehicle through which I was introduced to Erin Stockton, an American sommelier working at Gaston Vinbar in the medieval neighborhood of Gamla Stan. Originally from California, Stockton has only been in the Scandinavian country’s wine world for two years (she moved there with her Swedish fiancé), but I was nevertheless curious to get an American’s perspective. Turns out, she had a lot to say.

“Systembolaget’s buying system attempts to be as fair as possible” she said, but lamented that it “misses a lot of artisanal producers because they require such large quantities of wine. Of course, there are some exceptions, but for the most part it is quite hard to find terroir-driven wines or wines with age at the only wine shop in the country.” She said the positive effect, however, has been to foster a tighter community around the wine bars. “It has created quite the oasis for wine bar culture in the city. When people want to talk about wine, they come to us. It’s really quite special. If you are traveling and want to talk to and meet Swedes, a wine bar is a great place to do that.”

If wine bars and restaurants are the source of dynamism in the country’s industry, what trends had Stockton identified? Prior to meeting her at Gaston, I had noticed a sprinkling of “New California” producers, a la Jon Bonné, on several lists. Stockton confirmed the observation, saying she was pleased, as a Golden State native, to see his book make such a splash. “Some of my favorite producers like Arnot Roberts, Domaine de la Côte, and Ceritas, were on every top restaurant’s wine list.”

I’d also heard that Swedes felt strongly aligned with environmental issues, and that their market had one of the highest per capita rates of organic food and drink consumption. Even at the Systembolaget, a surprising percentage of boxed wines boasted organic certification, something we don’t see in the United States. How, then, does the predilection for green products play out in the conventional v. organic/Biodynamic wine debate, I asked her?

“Two years ago” she said, “sommeliers felt very divided between natural and classic wine, whereas today the two worlds are coming together. Swedes are conscientious people and if there is a choice between sustainable or chemicals, most will choose sustainable. In general, organic is always more desirable here, and Biodynamic, even more so.”

As she poured me a glass of Trousseau from Stolpman Vineyards, she added a few final thoughts. “The frontier of wine is expanding into Hungary, Greece, and other interesting areas; there are so many small importers bringing in fantastic new producers all the time.” She added that the city still loves its Burgundy and Bordeaux, however. “I think it adds a nice dimension to our city. Unlike a lot of hipster sommelier wine lists of the world, there will always be a great love for the classics here .”

 

Next time you are in Stockholm, check out these spots boasting dynamic (and classic) wine lists: 

Babette

According to Lundberg, the team behind Babette tries hard “to search for new and interesting wines that offer diversity with drinkability.” While changing daily, the list always features around 130 different bottles, and 20-25 different wines by the glass. “The regular rotation of selections makes it easy for our customers to explore new wines” said Lundberg. Although Babette is not a wine bar per se, but rather bills itself as a restaurant to which people flock for its pizzas (despite excellent vegetable dishes), Lundberg admits during certain hours “people tend to treat us like a wine bar.” Examples from the list during my visit in June included a 2014 Watson Ranch Chardonnay from Arnot Roberts, a 1998 Côte-Rôtie from Domaine Jamet, and a 1988 Bourgueil Les Perrières from Catherine & Pierre Breton.

Gaston Vinbar

This sleek little spot was a surprising find in the otherwise touristy area of historic Gamla Stan. Adjacent to The Flying Elk restaurant, which has a great beer program, Gaston presents a straightforward approach to wine. Its list hovers around 400 selections that change almost weekly. “We are not a natural wine bar nor are we classically focused” Stockton explained, adding “the wines we sell are representative of the place they come from whether that is Puligny-Montrachet or Sonoma Coast.” Gaston emphasizes education on its website and in the bar; they hold numerous private tastings as well as small flight-of-the-night events.

Hornstulls Bodega

Depending on your perspective, the wine bodega inside Hornstulls is located in the artistic or hipster part of town called Södermalm. The approachable crew behind the weathered wood bar are known for their laid-back attitude towards wine, and encourage guests, at their own pace, to adventure into the likes of Jura, Hungary, and Sherry territory. The space is cozy and candlelit, perfect for the impending fall weather and matching wines with their charcuterie and small bites.

Rolf’s Kök

For the classicists: massive (and expensive) Burgundy list at this meat-centric restaurant. But don’t be afraid to not order Burgundy, even if the waiter insists. The selection is peppered with gems from around the world. If you can stand the kitchen heat, grab a seat at the bar to watch the action.

Eriks Vinbaren

For the city’s original wine bar, carve out time for an evening at Eriks in Södermalm. A haven for wine aficionados looking for important and classic producers, wines on Coravin, and a deep cellar of rarities. To give an example, they recently offered Paul Bara Special Club and Jacques Selosse Champagnes by the glass. Vibe is as traditional as the wine.

19 Glas

Although closed during my trip, this wine bar was touted by other industry pros as the place to find organic and Biodynamic producers. Also located in Gamla Stan, not far from Gaston. A little wine bar hop perhaps?

by 

Lauren Mowery   

 

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