Systembolaget claims their policy isn't one of selling as much as possible. That's a pure lie. There's only one criteria which steers the wine included in their standard stock: those that sell the most. How the wine is produced, what quality it has, what additives are included and if it is affordable plays no role at all. It's the wine that brings in the most money that’s the priority.
All wine importers who work with Systembolaget know that it is this business strategy that applies, but politicians don't seem to be reacting to a monopoly which is supposed to protect Swedish drinking culture just being a profit-hungry money machine.
According to Systembolaget's homepage the company is supposed to be brand neutral. It should not discriminate or favour a particular distributor, producer or brand. That includes pricing, purchasing and how items are displayed in the shop.
Does that really hold up? The hundred most sold wines at Systembolaget are industrially produced wines. They are well displayed in the shops, and the sales statistics mean that they have a safe place in the regular stock. Wines that Systembolaget believe are going to be big sellers get a quick place in stores. A prime example is TV chef Per Morbergs red wine. Despite being hammered unanimously by wine experts, the wine was launched across the country's stores – an unattainable dream for a serious producer.
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Because a place in standard stock is only based on sales statistics, wine produced on an industrial scale is favoured. That's wine which belongs in the same category as mass produced food. The noteworthy thing is that many Swedish consumers today can differentiate between a sourdough yeast bread baked in a wood oven, and a mass-produced loaf, but don't think in those terms when they shop at Systemet.
“We aren't like other stores,” it says on Systembolaget's plastic bags. That's true. In the Ica stores where I shop the staff are proud when you buy a hand-produced product. At Systembolaget, the staff have no idea how the wine is produced. A store that cares about its customers doesn't recommend mass produced margarine for a bruschetta, but olive oil made with hand-picked olives.
Systembolaget's focus on large volume, low-cost customers is also reflected in their cooperation with Nordic Sea Winery in Simrishamn. There, wine is tailored to Systembolaget's instructions. On the packaging, well-known wine regions across the world are named. But many of them are completely unknown in their supposed country of origin. A series of best-selling box wines are produced there. The company favoured is called Oenoforos, which accounts for more than 10 percent of Systembolaget's wine sales.
Wine made by smaller producers who love their land, in an artisan way does not have a chance at Systembolaget. The prioritising of so-called organic wines recently is just a sales strategy. How organic are the wines? According to EU law, organic wine can include 37 different additives. It's absurd. A red wine from southern Italy for example includes as a rule less sulphur than an organic wine from northern Italy.
In vino veritas – in wine, truth. Yes, but not at Systembolaget.
This is an opinion piece written by food author and TV producer Bo Hagström first published in Swedish by Svenska Dagbladet.