There are two places in the world where my heart beats a little faster when I arrive there – Sweden and Pamplona.
For fifteen years I visited Sweden several times a year to promote Rioja with Munskänkarna, the biggest wine club in the world. The name means ‘the mouth tasters’ after the people who tried the food about to be served to the king to see if it had been poisoned. (What a profession!) Swedes have a love affair with Rioja that sadly has diminished with the passage of time, but back in the early 1990s it was one of our top three markets. In fact, in 1994, it was number one. Most Rioja was sold in the big cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö so we decided that we had to get the word out to the rest of the country.
The deal with Munskänkarna was for Rioja to pay for my flight to and from Sweden and transportation within the country while the club paid for the wines, meals and hotels. I would do a tasting a day in a different city followed by a dinner. This would go on for two weeks. Sometimes I’d rent a car, others, I’d take a bus and sometimes I’d be driven to a gas station or crossroads in the middle of the country to be handed off to the president of the club in the next city.
I can’t begin to describe the enthusiasm the club members showed during the tastings. Imagine fifty to a hundred people showing up in a small town on a snowy evening with their tasting glasses in a small suitcase or bag to learn about the Riojas the club had prepared for the tasting. I would tell them about the Rioja region, the history of each winery and the basic characteristics of the wines – vintage year, grape varieties and ageing, but let them describe in their own words the aromas and tastes they experienced.
During these tastings I learned that their way of describing the wines was conditioned by the tastes and smells they were familiar with – very different than mine. How could I talk to them about a cloudberry or a lingonberry if I’d never eaten one? It was the most important lesson I learned as a taster – never try to impose your nose and palate on someone else because we all have a different sense of smell and taste.
After every tasting the president of the club would thank me and give me a typical souvenir the region, most of which now sit on the mantel in our living room. I especially cherish a small statue of a horse from Dalecarlia, a cluster of grapes made of glass, an Örrefors plate, a small gold potato from Alingsås (more about that later) and believe it or not, a hand saw from the town of Sandviken (from one of the biggest toolmakers, Sandvik – imagine carrying that around for two weeks!)
I always talk about these trips to my Swedish friends who unfailingly tell me that I know their country better than they do. Most people’s knowledge of a foreign country is the capital. To really know Sweden you have to visit the countryside. It’s drop-dead gorgeous.
Among my memories is being dropped off near a roaring river in the north that bordered a forest destroyed by a fire. The man who picked me up told me that the fire had taken place fifty years earlier. There was so little sunlight that the forest couldn’t grow back!
I also remember playing a round of golf at midnight in June, watching the sun go down, only to come up again half an hour later.
I’m writing this while listening to a CD of Abba’s Greatest Hits, which always seems to be popular in our house during the Christmas holidays. I smile when I remember listening to it on a bus during a blizzard in northern Sweden while watching the ‘watch out for moose’ signs on the side of the road and thinking “it doesn’t get better than this”.
I became so enthusiastic about the country that I even studied Swedish for a couple of years and still prectice whenever I get a chance. The problem is that Swedes speak English so well that the first time I would make a mistake, the conversation would revert to English! A warning to the Swedes: I’m not going to give up!
I always tell my wine economics classes that to promote their products effectively they have to spend time in the market. My experience in Sweden is a vivid reminder of the truth of that statement
Note: the statue of the potato is in honor of the agronomist Jonas Alströmer, who convinced Swedish farmers to plant potatoes in the 18th century. That his home town of Alingsås would honor him by venerating the potato is a tribute to the Swedes’ sense of practicality.