If you can imagine a wine market at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hong Kong, it would be Norway. Norway goes beyond just regulating and taxing the wine industry - the government owns and/or controls nearly every aspect of alcohol sales. The government used to import all wine, but since it was liberalised in 1996, importers supply the monopoly's shops or sell directly to restaurants. Norway is one of a handful of wine monopolies in the world; others include Sweden, Finland and parts of Canada.
Norway has fewer than five million people, and there are about 270 Vinmonopolet wine monopoly shops with 12,000 imported wines and spirits. Not all are available in the shops, but the larger shops with fine wine sections have a huge selection that makes Watson's Wine Cellar or Ponti's tiny by comparison. At Vinmonopolet's Vika in Oslo the range of older vintages extends far beyond Bordeaux, although there is plenty of choice from this well-loved and well-marketed region. The selection includes a mouth-watering list of Vouvrays from top producers such as Huet, vintage champagne from the 1970s and '80s, Burgundy from the 1980s and '90s, mature Barolos at reasonable prices and a wide range of Sauternes.
Vinmonopolet has economies of scale going for it, so when it makes a purchase, it is in huge amounts. It can squeeze the producers on margins and pass that along to customers while contributing a solid amount to the government coffers. The monopoly has little profit interest, and tax is based on a complicated calculation that favours expensive wines.
When I was there last week, Vinmonpolet was organising its upcoming monthly regional promotion, which will be Burgundy. It includes many boutique producers and rare wines, I saw cases of wines from Domaine Leflaive in Puligny Montrachet stacked up in the storage room. Ken Engebretsen, president of the Norwegian Sommelier Association, confided that during one of Vinmonopolet's former Burgundy promotional months, it sold Domaine de la Romanee Conti directly from the producer! Not surprisingly, there was a long queue for the wines, which were sold on a first-come, first-served basis.
The shops are not all about fine wines. As much as bottled wine, there were nearly as many rows filled with bag in the box (BIB) wines. Not all the wines sold in these boxes with plastic spouts are cheap wines; I saw BIB from high quality producers such as Luca Roagna selling Barbera in three-litre boxes. However, wines for long-term ageing would not be sold in BIB due to their limited shelf lives; the sell-by date is always written on the box.
Thirty years ago, Norway was consuming about as much as Hong Kong is consuming now - about four to five litres per capita. Since then, consumption has more than tripled. Changes started when Norway signed the European Economic Agreement in 1994 and when Vinmonopolet began to change the way wine was sold. Only 10 years ago, wine retail purchases involved customers ordering wines that were kept behind the counter from a list. Opening the wine shops to allow wine buyers to browse the shelves and interact with the wines increased sales.
As in Hong Kong, the market prefers European wines, with France and Italy leading for reds and France and Germany for white wines, Engebretsen says. Unlike in Sweden, wines from South Africa or Chile are not popular in Norway. No one could give me a convincing reason why Norwegians have such a strong preference for European wines.
Over the past several years, Vinmonopolet has produced free literature (only in Norwegian) about how to enjoy wine with food. Part of the reason, according to Tom Tyrihjell, Vinmonopolet's team leader for food pairing communication, is that the organisation has a social obligation to promote responsible drinking, and one way is to promote wine's consumption with food.
As frightening as it may seem for us free-market adoring wine lovers, the reality of a government-controlled wine industry is much more palatable than it sounds. While the system may be more restrictive, an enlightened monopoly can provide a wide choice, competitive prices, free food and wine pairing advice and a knowledgeable sales force. (All Vinmonopolet salespeople are well educated in wine.) I would certainly not trade our open market structure for Norway's, but the local industry seems fairly happy. At least a dozen people I asked during my visit said the wine monopoly is the best choice for Norway and it works well.