Getting a listing in Vinmonopolet, the Norwegian alcohol monopoly, is so difficult that many wine producers have nicknamed Norway the “no way” market. But, says Marius Odland, there are several ways to enter the market, not all of which are obvious.
Odland has a deep understanding of his home market. He began his career as a publisher of lifestyle magazines, before founding the magazine Vin Brennevin (Wine & Spirits) in 2009. Since 2016, he’s also been a wine importer; in 2017 he became the Portfolio Manager of importer Nordic Wine, Beer & Spirits.
In November 2022, he headed to Verona to participate in Wine2Wine, the business forum. There, he participated in the panel on the Scandinavian and Nordic markets, ably moderated by Swedish journalist Åsa Johansson.
Inside the Norwegian wine market
“In Norway, the importer has all the responsibility to import the wine and to keep it in stock,” said Odland. “We own all the goods. The monopoly, on the other side, decides what to buy for tenders.”
Six tenders a year
Vinmonopolet launches new products six times a year, focusing on a particular region or style each time. Prior to the launches, they publish tenders, outlining exactly what they’re looking for, and calling for samples.
Tenders, said Odland, have to be taken seriously, particularly when it comes to finding an importer. “It’s difficult for you as a producer to approach us with your wine unless there is a tender,” he said, suggesting that producers should follow the tender lists carefully and keep up to date with what the monopoly is looking for. “The tenders are very specific, and there is a possibility that the tender will fit your wine production at some point.”
In other words, a producer whose wines are a perfect fit for an upcoming tender, should take the opportunity to introduce themselves to a Norwegian importer.
Importers also keep an eye on the tenders, and will go looking for relevant products that fit Vinmonopolet’s specifications.
Many monopoly fairs
There is also another way to enter the Norwegian market, said Odland: participate in one of the 60 or 70 monopoly fairs. “These are arranged all over the country, every year,” he said. “We can invite all the monopoly shops to come to us to taste our wine.”
Each of Norway’s 340 wine stores has some discretion about what to list. “Each store can choose a wine to put in that particular store that will not be in other monopoly stores,” said Odland, adding that individual stores could hold as much as 20% unique stock. As the stores are of different sizes, some stores have considerable capacity to take on new wines. “It’s a big opportunity to build your brand without tenders.”
Another possibility is listing a wine for sale in Vinmonopolet’s online system; although this doesn’t mean the products are always available in store, Norwegian customers are able to order tem off the internet.
Norway, like all of the other monopolies, values sustainable products, and are demanding better packaging and more evidence of sustainable practices. “Basically, the consumers don’t care as much, but since the monopoly are the ones who buy the wine, we need to care,” said Odland.
Tips and tricks of the Swedish wine market
“It’s very interesting to listen to Marius,” said Margareta Lundeberg, “because I think there are a lot of differences between our monopoly countries. Sweden, Finland and Norway ― we are very different.”
Lundeberg is the founder of Handpicked Wines, an importer that works with small- and medium-sized wineries, which is licensed to sell to both Systembolaget, the Swedish monopoly, and the on-trade.
Big and small tenders
Systembolaget, she says, also has tenders. “I think my work as an importer started to be fun when I stopped working for the big tenders, because there are other ways to enter,” the system, she said. “From the beginning, I worked a lot trying to get the big tenders, but nowadays, I feel much more confident and safe not to risk a lot of things by going for the big tenders.”
There are risks to winning a tender, Lundeberg explained. Producers can win a tender that the monopoly thinks might involve 100,000 litres of wine. But what happens if the brand fails to sell the entire volume? Or what if it sells out, but a similar brand sells even more? “If you don’t keep your position, you will be delisted. And then you may be sitting in the market with 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 litres.”
What Lundeberg prefers to do, she says, is work with “temporary tenders. It’s like a tender process, but they only ask for samples from 10 to 15 importers.” Systembolaget is very specific about what they want: “the wine has to have a good score; it has to be the kind of style they are looking for”. Producers who win temporary tenders only have to supply between 5,000 and 15,000 litres, so the risk isn’t so high.
Then there are “exclusive listings, and that is not the tender process,” she went on. “I go to the buyer and I present the wine. It could be from 36 bottles up to 5,000 bottles. For us, that is a good volume.”
In this case, Systembolaget may give an exclusive or temporary listing.
Lundeberg also works with restaurants who, she says, are showing an increased preference for “high acidity. You want fruit, you want minerality, you want volcanic, you want natural.”
What is significant is that organic wines now represent 25% of Sweden’s market, “and now they’re also focusing on other certifications,” besides simply organic. As in Norway, sustainable credentials are exceptionally important for anyone looking to enter Sweden.
Selling wine in Finland
Finland, the smallest of the Scandinavian markets, is still largely a beer country, said Nina Witikka, Wine Director at Wineworld Finland Ltd. “Beer is more popular than wine,” she said. Still, Witikka added, “we used to drink a lot more vodka than today, so wine is gaining historically.”
Wine only arrived in Finland in a serious way in 1987, according to writer Petri Pellinen; today, wine represents just 19% of all alcohol consumption, and the majority is sold through Alko, the monopoly.
Witikka added that Finland’s official figures don’t reflect the country’s total wine consumption, as Finns often cross the border into Estonia to buy their alcohol, because it’s cheaper.
Like Sweden’s Lundeberg, Witikka says she doesn’t wait for tenders, because the monopoly also has an online assortment, where new products can be placed. “If there’s something that we believe in, we put it in the sell-to-order assortment.”
Just three minutes
But there’s a catch: “The average Finn goes to an Alko shop less than once a month,” said Witikka. “When they go, they spend three minutes on average, including the time they’re at the cashier.” In other words, they run in, buy what’s on display, and get out. The challenge, then, is to make people want to buy a specific product, so they know what to look for when they enter the store.
In 2016, when Witikka’s company began, they had just two listings. “Today we have 148, many of them sale-to-order items. We are not good at winning tenders, but we’re good at finding something that people love and will buy again.”
The secret to success, she said, is knowing how to use social media effectively, with an emphasis on the call to action. “We’ve done quite a lot of good successful campaigns on social media,” said Witikka. “Where to go, click, where to get the information. That’s been quite successful.”
The Riesling and Prosecco booms
As for what the Finns are drinking Witikka says that white wine is increasing, “and there is a Riesling boom.” Prosecco is also growing, which she thinks is because it’s easy to drink, which appeals to younger consumers, and it “competes with cider, ready-to-drinks, maybe beer.”
Another reason may be that younger Finns pay attention to social media influencers outside Finland, who may have introduced them to Prosecco. “The wine influencers in Finland are quite boring,” said Witikka. “They don’t look at the younger audience.”
Bag-in-box is also very big. “We are very practical people,” said Witikka, explaining that the bag-in-box is a very convenient format for Finns who are going hunting or boating, or just heading out to their summer holiday house. “That is partly also why Tetra- and PET are growing in Finland. They’re very practical.”
As for price, “the biggest growing price category is €12 to €15”. Although there are plenty of consumers who want to buy wine under €10, the market can’t supply it, because “nobody’s making money. The only ones making money are the tax authorities and the monopoly, because their margin is the highest in Scandinavia.”