Heidi Mäkinen MW: How to Succeed in Selling Wine in Finland

Heidi Mäkinen talks to Robert Joseph about the unique aspects of the Nordic monopolies and the way tenders work. She also explains the differences between Finland, Sweden, and Norway, as well as varying consumer preferences in these markets.

Reading time: 7m 15s

Heidi Mäkinen MW
Heidi Mäkinen MW

Heidi Mäkinen MW is Portfolio Manager and Partner of Viinitie one of Finland's leading importers. She has a degree in theatre and drama research and extensive experience as a sommelier in Finland and the UK. In 2020, she became President of the Finnish Sommelier Association. Robert Joseph tapped into her expertise as one of the most knowledgeable members of the Nordic wine trade.

How to sell wine in a monopoly

Meininger’s: As in the other monopoly states, there is a gap between the on-trade, where you have worked, and the retail stores. How does that work, when it comes to building a market for a producer or their wine?

Mäkinen: Our company is multi-channelled. For most producers, we work with, we try to find business both in on- and off-trade. The opportunities, of course, depend on their scale. Brands are often built in restaurants, as sommeliers have their finger on the pulse of the wine world. And we are able to work with small allocations. Retail can often be rather price-driven, especially in a market like Finland. So, if faced with the choice, most small producers would prefer to place their wines in the on-trade.

Meininger’s: Finland’s excise duty rates are very high. How does this affect the market – especially in the on-trade, where even the cheapest wine is very costly?

Mäkinen: The duty per 0,75-litre bottle is €3,42 and our VAT is about to rise to 25,5% in the near future, so Finland is definitely not the cheapest location to buy wine! Fortunately, in wine-focused restaurants staff are very knowledgeable and their guests open-minded, so the wine choices and price points can be quite varied. The type of restaurant and its location of course matters, but I would say most venues are looking to buy wines for €15-25, especially if they want to pour the wine by the glass.

This would require an export price of €3-8 - the entry level price point for most producers. Our country is relatively remote from wine producing countries, so transport and logistic costs are significant. Then you add in high employment costs and the fact restaurants need to make most of their margin on wine, and you end up seeing Bourgogne Blancs and Riesling Trocken at quite high price points. I think many people would still not expect to pay more than €50 per bottle, so the equation is quite challenging.

The Nordic countries - three different markets

Meininger’s: The Alko monopoly’s margins are higher than Systembolaget’s and the model seems to be a little different. Is your role as an importer more important in Finland than it would be in Sweden?

Mäkinen: The monopolies do work a bit differently, but the principles are the same. We have our own warehouse from where we sell both to Alko and restaurants, and Horeca is still the core of our business. It is possible to use Alko’s importing service but having our own warehouse gives us much more control over the stocks and enables us to be multi-channelled. I would suspect our model would be the same if we were based in Sweden.

The cross-Nordic distributors benefit from their purchasing power and logistics, but consumption is very different in each of them.

Meininger’s: The Nordics are always seen as a like-minded set of markets, because of location and proliferation of monopolies – and the number of distributors with a presence in more than one country. How true is that?

Mäkinen: The cross-Nordic distributors benefit from their purchasing power and logistics, so there are benefits in working in all three markets but consumption is very different in each of them.

I think Norway’s Vinmonopolet is the best of the three. Norway tends to be traditional and practical, but with good purchasing power. They have money, so they drink Barolos and Burgundy. Their practical side is seen in sales of BiBs and pouches.

Sweden is twice our size and so gets bigger allocations. It is somewhat traditional too, but follows European trends a bit quicker than us in Finland. The consumers there also benefit from the monopoly’s lower margins. There are still a lot of small and mid-sized producers especially from outside of Europe that are not present in our market but have a presence in Sweden and Norway. The Finnish wine culture is still young, we don’t have quite the same food and beverage culture as the Swedes. And Finland is very tiny. We might get 120 bottles from one producer. And our restaurants will want all of that.

Meininger’s: Are there other reasons why wines might be in one market and not another?

Mäkinen: Small producers don't want to do 50 different back labels for different markets. Does it make sense to do that for a tiny allocation? And monopolies have specific requirements in terms of analysis. A lot of small producers would expect us to pay for it, which would destroy our margin.

The secrets of tenders

Meininger’s: There are stories of monopolies tailoring tenders quite precisely to favour styles produced by particular producers. Does this happen? And, alternatively, can one tailor a wine to suit the monopoly’s tastes?

Mäkinen: Tenders are a bit of a lottery, but we do try to answer them as they often offer good volumes. However, the real work only starts after you win one, as to keep a brand or wine successful requires a lot of effort, which many people tend to forget. Monopoly buyers visit international wine fairs for new ideas, and tenders can indeed be inspired by what’s seen in the market. I’ve seen tenders written quite differently between the three Nordic monopolies, but in principle they should offer equal opportunities for anyone to answer them. And there is a possibility to add wines into the sale-to-order selection and while this requires building the brand and its store coverage from scratch, here the wines can indeed be tailored to meet the tastes of the final consumer.

Tenders are a bit of a lottery... However, the real work only starts after you win one.

Meininger’s: What happens after you’ve won a tender?

Mäkinen: That's the most relevant work that we do. Then we start building the brand, and we look at whether there’s something else in the producer's portfolio that we can bring in to support that one core wine?

Our marketing is rather multi-channelled, but for the retail market, we’re primarily active on social media - Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. We also put a focus on digital marketing and have created our own website for those interested in learning more about wine. We have a newsletter intended for wine lovers, run our own wine events, and stay close to wine media. It’s a lot of work but we see the results of our various activities, which is encouraging.


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Reading time: 5m 30s

Size matters

Meininger’s: How small are some tenders?

Mäkinen: There are speciality offers that are only valid for four months and certain stores. If it's at a high price point, it could be only 42 bottles. Or anything up to 600.

Meininger’s: How do the wines, that do make it into the Alko stores, get to be there?

Mäkinen: Shelf space is given based on sales during two time periods where they monitor the performance.

For example, if we sold a large quantity of a wine very successfully this spring, it will impact our store allocation for the same period next year.

In essence though, we are still mostly a beer-drinking country.

Meininger’s: Sub 5.5% beverages can now be bought outside the monopoly stores. How important to the Finnish market are these – and low – sub 8% - and zero alcohol wines? Is this sector growing?

Mäkinen: There is currently a lot of discussion about allowing wine up to 8% to be sold in supermarkets. The timetable for the change is still unclear as it has been postponed a couple of times. In my experience, 5,5% never really took off and I suspect the same might happen to 8%. However, the idea for the change is eventually to allow all wine to be sold outside of Alko if the impact on society of the first change isn’t significant. In essence though, we are still mostly a beer-drinking country.

As for zero alcohol, I now see some fine restaurants that offer ten course tasting menus with wine pairing that includes non-alcoholic beverages because people don't want to be intoxicated at the end of the meal. We have bought some sparkling teas, and they are very much in demand in the on-trade. But also, people are starting to find them in the retail sector.

Consumer preferences

Meininger’s: Do you think living in a monopoly market has an impact on consumers? Do you see any differences between attitudes in Finland and elsewhere in Europe?

Mäkinen: Compared to wine-producing countries, we are open-minded for various styles and origins of wine. The majority of retail consumers are happy with the monopoly’s selection, but more involved wine drinkers and collectors end up sourcing wines when travelling or ordering them online.

Meininger’s: Personal imports from Tallinn are quite significant. How close are ties with the Baltics?

Mäkinen: Finns love to visit Estonia and buy beverages for their own consumption there for lower prices. It is not so different from Estonians going to Latvia, Latvians going to Lithuania, Swedes going to Denmark and Danes going to Germany. You get the picture – the grass always feels greener and prices cheaper!

Our wine culture is young and many people who are relatively new to wine often look for more mellow, fruitier styles.

Meininger’s: Historically, Chile, Italy, Spain, Portugal and South Africa are all strong in your market. France seems to underperform – apart from Rosé, as do Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and the US. Why is this?

Mäkinen: I think this is related to value and the wine styles produced. As mentioned earlier, our wine culture is young and many relatively new to wine often look for more mellow, fruitier styles, which have traditionally been produced in some of the countries you mentioned. We also love German Riesling, as it’s fruity, fresh, suits our cuisine – and is easy to pronounce!

Meininger’s: You have stepped down as president of the Finnish sommelier association. Why?

Mäkinen: I was a president for four years and, while, I still have lots of ideas, I don't have the energy to go on doing it. So it feels to me that maybe it's best to have somebody else driving it, because I can still be active even if I'm not carrying the whole responsibility. I’d much rather do that. I do want to continue working with ASI, but I also need to make a living and have spare time for myself.

Meininger’s: Finally, are there any brief tips you would offer anyone wanting to enter the Finnish market or improve their sales there?

Mäkinen: I think the best is to find an importer / distributor who really knows and understands the market and whose ideas about positioning the wines and overall targets match those of the producer.


The ASI is adopting new rules, including a new code of conduct. Robert Joseph went to the annual general assembly to hear more.

Reading time: 4m 15s



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