Sweet Finnish

Berry delicious wines

It was 2003, and I asked my wife, Paola, to pick out a kit for me at the homebrew shop near Boston, Massachusetts. I figured if I made beers she was interested in, she would be more accepting of my new homebrew hobby.

“I found it,” she said, holding up a box. Looking at it, I told her, “Riesling is not a beer.” 

“But you can make it with the same equipment you already have and this is what I want.”

Taking it home, it was surprisingly easy to make. It was drinkable and it got me thinking, could I make better wine? Thus began a journey down the slippery slope well known to fellow hobbyists; to make better wine from quality concentrate kits, whole juice kits, fresh juice in season, and finally whole grapes, and then better quality grapes. Our wines got better with each step.

Wanting to continue the hobby, I looked to see what I could get and in Finland that meant berries.

In 2008 we moved to Finland for my work, and in the back of my head I thought, “this is an opportunity to get good Italian grapes.” But it was not to be — there is no infrastructure to support home winemakers in Finland, so obtaining grapes or even good-quality kits was just not possible. Wanting to continue the hobby, I looked to see what I could get and in Finland that meant berries. The local berries were extraordinary . . . but how to work with them? 

author David Cohen and his wife in their winery
Photo courtesy of David Cohen

That began a new project, and after only a few years Paola realized the fruit wines we were making in Finland were better than the wines we made in the U.S. and the key was the quality of the fruit. She also realized no one was making wines like us locally and, looking to go back to work, she decided that starting a winery was an opportunity. I would make the wine in the evenings and weekend (while continuing my day job as an engineer) and she would sell the wines. In 2014 we founded Ainoa Winery (translation: Ainoa = unique; pronunciation: “I know a winery”).

What we didn’t understand before starting though was that many people in Finland looked down on berry wines. It was almost impossible to get people to even taste our wines, and after a year we were ready to give up. But a friend from work told us to get an independent evaluation of the wines first. So we sent two wines to the East Meets West Wine Competition in Sonoma County, California, and our blueberry wine became the first Finnish wine to win a gold medal in an international competition (cloudberry wine got a silver). We realized that our wine was good . . . we just had to communicate better.

Over the next year, we worked on our brand, our packaging, and our message. Our wines were subsequently accepted into the alcohol monopoly shops (state-owned liquor stores).

In 2017 we sent samples to the Vinalies Internationales, the premier tasting of the Oenologues de France and one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the world. Vinalies had never previously awarded a fruit wine, yet our raspberry wine received a gold medal, a Vinalies Trophy (their highest honor), and was rated the 11th best overall of the 3,500+ wines from 45 countries that year. The Oenologues have since awarded 7 more gold medals to fruit wines — all of them to Ainoa.

Restaurants in Finland realized we had something special, sales picked up, and recognition followed. In 2018 we were honored for our contribution to advancing Finnish cuisine, and in 2019 we were awarded the Embla Nordic Food Artisan trophy for creating world-class wine using native Nordic ingredients. By 2020 Ainoa was successful enough that I switched from being an engineer to a professional winemaker.

Looking back 20 years, my strategy worked. These days Paola fully supports my homebrewing winemaking.