• News
  • People
  • Long Read
  • Opinion
  • Weekend Wrap

Do I Know You?

“We've captured the essence of the Finnish berries in our wine,” say Paola Guerrero de Cohen and David Cohen

With their groundbreaking venture, Ainoa Winery has undoubtedly placed Finland on the global wine stage.

Julian Helminen

In the land of frozen seas and perpetual darkness, two outsiders have defied the odds and put Finland on the international wine map.

When expats Paola Guerrero de Cohen, an Ecuadorian, and her American husband, David Cohen, began developing their idea for making berry wines in their adopted home of Finland, they were met with indifference from the local community.

Indeed, their early attempts to build upon the foundations of their hobbyist winemaking by using local ingredients instead of grapes were greeted with silence, a reaction not uncommon in Finland, admittedly. Yet it was this muted response, devoid of detraction, that only served not to dampen their enthusiasm for their business idea – one they couldn’t shake.

In time, their berry wine concoctions began to turn heads, however, and after a friend suggested entering global competitions to gain greater exposure, accolades and awards poured in from as far-flung regions as Melbourne, Berlin and California. The pinnacle of their early success came when their Vaapukka raspberry dessert wine was awarded at the prestigious Vinalies International Wine Competition in Paris. This marked the first time a berry wine had received such recognition at the event – no mean feat considering the rich winemaking heritage of the region.

Ainoa wines have been served in many of the top restaurants across Finland.

Visit Lahti

The cork was out of the bottle for Ainoa Winery.

And like the very product they make, subsequent years have seen their venture has aged well. Very well, actually. Their portfolio of wines has since grown to around 20 products – 12 of which are currently for sale – as David’s winemaking creations are experienced by an even greater audience of wine lovers thanks to Paola’s business acumen. The world is beckoning, too. A partnership with Finnair saw their wines being served to a more international clientele, 30 000 feet in the air, and now the duo is on the cusp of exporting their northern flavours to international markets.

We sat down with them at their winery in the town of Hollola, some 100 kilometres north of Helsinki, to hear about the role that Lapland plays in the success of their wines, what it is like to raise a family here as foreigners and how the perspective of newcomers is invaluable when establishing a business here.

What’s the most important ingredient in your wines?

David: The berries. The limiting factor when you're making wine is the quality of the fruit. You can't make better wine than the fruit allows. When we lived in the US, we were using grapes as hobbyist winemakers and the biggest struggle was getting the best quality grapes we could. But anyways, we came to Finland, and it turns out that this is not the hardest part about making quality wine. It's the easy part, because everyone here has access to the best berries in the world.

The duo moved to Finland around 15 years ago due to David’s work. Nowadays, he devotes 100 per cent of his working hours to Ainoa Winery.

Visit Lahti

When this was still a hobby, we ordered blueberries and lingonberries from different parts of Finland to figure out where the best berries come from. And the results were really clear: the further north the berries grow, the better the quality for winemaking. So, we nowadays order the wild berries from Lapland or areas near Lapland from companies that sell frozen berries. When we first approached them, we asked if we could get fresh berries. They said, of course, go and pick them yourself! But we buy by the tonne, so that's not practical.

It turns out that freezing the berries does not hurt their quality. It does change the process, but frozen fruit is a huge advantage also. If you're working with fresh grapes, you need to start making the wine when the fruit is ripe. However, these berries are just packed, and the work is non-stop – we can spread it out through the year.

There are two rules for making the best wine possible: use the best berries you can possibly find and don't ruin it, which means finding the best process, not just for that particular ingredient, but also for the particular wine we are trying to make.  And because there is not a long history of fine berry winemaking, there isn't a lot of info to draw upon.  That's why we use trial and error.

How long does it take to develop a wine?

Paola: We've been making wine for over 20 years. It takes us on average about three years to develop a new wine – a lot of trial and error in that. The longest time we've spent on a wine that's been successful was 12 years. We spent 12 years developing our strawberry wine before we said, okay, this passes our wow test.

Some of the best feedback the duo has received is that they have captured the essence of the Finnish berries in their wines.

Tiiu Kaitalo

What gives it a ‘wow’?

David: In simple terms, it's pleasant to drink. There are all kinds of things that tie into that, and I focus a lot on balance. Balance is a combination of five elements: sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol and body. In general, with a balanced wine, you can just sit there and have a glass and enjoy it. And with the right food, it's even better.

Paola: I should say that when we make wine, we always have food in mind because that's what the wine does better than anything else. Wine combined with food can make an incredible taste experience.

David: We've captured the essence of the Finnish berries in our wine, which is extraordinarily difficult to do, because when you ferment something, typically the flavours change. How many grape wines have you had that taste like grapes? There are some, but there are not many. So, to have a strawberry wine that tastes like Finnish strawberries, it was extraordinarily difficult to do.

Why did you establish the winery here in Hollola?

Paola: Well, we spent several years looking for the right location. It needed to have some land, so we could eventually expand and, by law, wineries in Finland must be in the countryside. And it had to be something we could afford. It took us several years to find a place that checked all those boxes. But this one just turned out to be perfect.

Winemaking for the duo is basically trial and error drawing upon thousands of years of expertise.

Sebastian Ratu

David: The neighbours have all welcomed us, which was a huge concern coming here. It was wonderful. The Hollola municipality,  and the Visit Lahti and LADEC Lahti Region Development organisations have been very helpful. They have been really supportive and for a small business looking for a place to set up, it's hard to think of a place better actually.

And there are some really good things in the area that people are proud of. The water is the best here and the locals are justifiably proud of this. But I do have a little issue with this. They talk about how the water here makes the best beers and spirits and wines, and I keep telling them, no, I don't make wine from water. That's a different guy. [laughs]

You are now preparing for your first significant exports. How have you developed this international growth?

Paola: From the very beginning we tried to build a relationship with everybody we work with. For almost nine years, we have some of the same suppliers and our distributor here in Finland. We just tried to find good partners. This is the same thing that we're looking for abroad. The best thing that we can do is to find a partner that works with us, that we share the same values and goals. We hope that we continue building our relationships like this.

David: Traditionally, when companies look to their exports, they look around and say, “Okay, we're going to target this market”. But we haven't done that. And the reason why is because of my experience back in the US. Before I came to Finland, I was working with a small company that did about roughly half of its sales in the US and half internationally, all working through international partners. But the sales did not match the market size. The biggest markets for us were the UK, Japan, Israel and Finland. How does Finland get on that list, as it is small country? Basically, our product dominated the market because we had the right partner. And so, we just focus on the partner first and then the market. You know if we have the right partner, the market will work. It doesn't matter which market it is.

Interestingly, you did not go the investor route early on in the company’s journey.

Paola: When you bring in investors, there are certain expectations. There are many reasons people start companies. A lot of people have these ideas that they're going to get rich that way, but we were not looking at it like that, as we're looking at it as a way to be independent, allow us to support our family and be active members of our society, where we can help build a more sustainable future and create economic growth to the Finnish economy.

David: But we're not opposed to investors; in fact, we have taken some small investments, but it's just it has to be on our terms. Our vision has to be respected.

The duo are seeking to introduce what they're doing to a wider audience. 

Visit Lahti

What was the experience like to establish the business in the first place?

David: Well, it was difficult. There are all kinds of things you need to do to establish a business in Finland, and we had no clue what those were. Just the fact that we didn't grow up here actually made that whole process quite a bit more difficult – yeah, figuring out the rules how to establish your business. And then on top of that, it was learning about the rules of the alcohol business. Then finding suppliers and finding people willing to work with us was much more difficult.

As far as a foreigner establishing a business in Finland, there's one aspect which is easier for a foreigner, and that is figuring out an idea of something that's not here that would be successful. You come from some place else, and you look and say, why is everyone doing it that way? And everyone who's born here says, "well, that's the way it's done". And you think, no, no, there's a better way. I've seen the other way, and it’s like this. So that aspect is easier for an immigrant. But ideas are really cheap. It's actually developing, doing the work and getting everything running – that’s the hard part.

On a personal note, what was it like as immigrants moving here and raising kids in an environment where Finnish is not your native tongues?

Paola: It’s actually been fairly easy for me. Especially since our kids were one and three when we first came here and, in the US, the maternity leave was only eight weeks. I didn't get a chance to enjoy having my children. When we first came here, I wasn't working, I was just taking care of the family. It was just love at first sight, you know, enjoying the maternity leave here in Finland, going to the parks and enjoying all the activities with the children and getting to know all the parents. Just through that, I was like, wow, this is this is a great balance of life.

This is a great place to be with a family. Back then, because of David’s work, we were only supposed to be here for a year. But still, you know, we felt that if we are here, our kids should learn Finnish from the start. So instead of us as foreigners putting our children to English daycare, we put them in a regular Finnish daycare so that they learn the language.

Last year, the winery produced approximately 16 000 litres of wine.

Tiiu Kaitalo

The very first time we were at a park, a kid took a toy away from my child. I didn't know what to tell them. And so, I didn't want my children to not be able to communicate with other children here. So that's how we started them in Finnish daycare. It was easy for them to integrate. And then, every year David’s contract kept extending, and then it was time for them to go to school here.

We've met really great people through our children, through their hobbies, and also through David's work. I would say that the whole process of raising children and being a family and having all the things you need is much easier here than it is in the US. It was one of the strong factors we considered when we decided we wanted to stay here.

You spoke earlier of your values and finding partners that kind of align with these. So, what are your values exactly?

David: We’re not trying to just make a quick buck. And that's been like a breaking point for a lot of people that contact us that see we have something, and they're just looking for like a one-off quick payout type thing. What we're trying to do is build a long-term relationship. We do want to introduce what we're doing to a wider audience. We want people to appreciate the Finnish berries as much as people in Finland do. People who come here, they're astonished by the berries, but they're not widely known outside of Finland, and they should be. Part of the reason is fresh berries don't travel well, but our wines travel quite well so people can, you know, experience how good the Finnish berries are in this form.

So, you know it also comes back to a little bit of this immigrant aspect. It's not very often that an immigrant gets to do something that really, you know, sort of pays back the country. But to do something that enhances the reputation of the country, which welcomed us in, feels good. You know, it's not just about money. It's also our vision, it is honouring the berries and the Finnish terroir and, in doing so, we bring the best out of Finland to the world.

By: James O’Sullivan