Growing up, Heidi Mäkinen visited Hungary a few times, seeing friends and family and tasting many of the wines produced there. Trading the endless daylight of Finnish summer for dimly lit wine cellars, it was perhaps here that a seed was planted. One that swiftly began to bear fruit, of the grape-shaped variety.
A career in hospitality commenced once she finished her schooling in Finland, further stoking her enthusiasm for all things wine. This soon blossomed into an extended stint as a sommelier. The next step on her wine trail would be London, where she attained a Master of Wine degree at the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine. One of only 390 people worldwide to have completed the degree – four of whom are from Finland – Mäkinen spent three years studying all aspects of the winemaking process, from production, logistics and marketing to its economic, health and social impact.
Her final thesis assessed Finnish on-trade wine education, a subject which naturally led to her current position at Viinitie, a Helsinki-based wine and beer importer. Here Mäkinen puts her broad knowledge to good use, on a quest to deepen Finland’s appreciation of wine.
We sat down with Mäkinen to discuss Finland’s place on the global wine scene, why Helsinki is more liveable than London and – crucially – brushing your teeth in a timely fashion before a morning tasting session.
Do you miss living in London?
London is a great city. I miss it dearly. It has been my favourite city since before I lived there, when I lived there and after I left. I would not want to move permanently back, though. Now I live very centrally in Helsinki, by myself. Actually, the first thing I did when I came back home to my new place in Helsinki was take off my clothes and put some music on. I thought ‘this is the life: I can be naked in the middle of the night in my own home and play music’.
You can’t do that in London. When you work in a restaurant, your salary is not going to be big enough for you to live on your own, so you have to share. Also, the quality of life here is so much better than in London: the plumbing, hot water, triple windows, cleanliness and safety.
It has also become a lot more international in Helsinki. Every time I go to restaurants, I end up speaking English. There is always someone there – a sommelier or waiter or chef – whose mother tongue is not Finnish. There are a lot of new entrepreneurs and restaurants, it’s a really buzzing place actually.
Congratulations on attaining the Master of Wine. Why did you study it?
It’s ultimately because of my curiosity. Basically, the idea of studying wine started with the fact that when I had a glass of wine in front of me the glass asked me so many questions I didn’t know the answer to.
How many glasses do you have to have before the wine starts doing this?
[in a mock voice] The wine is talking to me. It’s whispering. [laughs]
Seriously though, what kinds of questions?
When you taste the wine, do you know where the grape comes from? How it’s made? Why does it taste the way it tastes? I really wanted to understand the product. Who made it? All aspects. I’m also really interested in the business side of it. You need to know this side of things as well, otherwise you’re just going to be talking about grape types and that’s it.
It’s interesting that three out of four Masters of Wine in Finland are female. Why do you think this is?
I don’t know, maybe it’s just the personalities of those who studied the programme and eventually finished it. There’s also a lot of talk about women being potentially better tasters than men. But for the Master of Wine, you can teach yourself and learn to taste. I think everybody can do that. I don’t think it’s a talent, it’s just the amount of work and effort that you put into it. I don’t know why there are three women and one man from Finland.
When you look at other countries in the sommelier world, it’s different. When I went to Argentina to compete in the Sommelier World Championships in 2016, there were only four women out of 60 candidates. The wine world is still very masculine. In Finland, it’s a bit more equal, obviously as Finland is a bit more of an equal country compared to other places. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we have a little bit more equality in the restaurant trade here: wine is not so culturally gender-based.
Does Finland have any hope of ever becoming a significant wine producer?
Finland is a very cool climate region, and the ground is very cold as well. So, it’s very hard for real quality vines to produce grapes here. It takes about three years to get a vine established and, in those three years, you shouldn’t have too many frost days because it will kill the vine. That’s why we haven’t got many producers in Finland. We’ve been producing berry wines, but that’s a completely different thing.
Of course, there are hybrid varieties that can persevere in a cooler climate, but whether they really make interesting wine… There is a lot of research going on, but I think it’s going to take at least 20 more years to really make a successful wine in Finland. I kind of hope it does not happen in my lifetime, but the climate is changing and we have rising temperatures all the time, so you never know.
Now there’s a bit of a trend in European countries that don’t normally produce wine to import grapes and make wine from them. There are a few urban wineries in London, for example, where they do this. And it’s happening in Finland as well.
You mentioned that the restaurant scene here is really kicking on these days. Are people also now more interested in drinking wine in Finland?
We are still in baby shoes. The wine culture is just starting. I see a huge potential, but it has never been part of our heritage as it is in the French and Italian cultures, for example. So, if you go for lunch here and grab a glass of wine, people comment that it’s only 12:00. If you have a glass of wine people think firstly that you are drinking alcohol and then, secondly, that it may be an interesting product. But the first thought is always that it is alcohol. This is changing with the younger generations, but it will take time for it to be truly accepted as part of the culture and the dining experience.
What’s an average day for you like at work?
I’m responsible for local education and developing relationships with producers. I organise a lot of events. Yesterday we organised a Wine Talk, which is where we bring interesting people, normally producers, to visit us and talk about a specific topic. Yesterday, the topic was Furmint, the Hungarian grape variety. We talked about its relevance, what we need to know about it, what the SWOT analysis of the variety is. Then we tasted some wines.
I also met someone yesterday who is opening their own restaurant. They asked for suggestions for their wine list and their concept. And they were asking also when they open the restaurant if I can go and taste the food and wine, make recommendations and say if the wine they have chosen fits the concept. Sometimes I also go to restaurants and give training on the listed wines.
Do you ever get sick of talking about wine?
When I was still studying, people told me that there will be times when you are so fed up with wine that you don’t want anything to do with it. You can’t stand another one! That never happened to me. After my final exam, everybody went to have a beer – I went to drink some more wine. I just want to drink wine and will never get bored of it. I find it fascinating.
What is your morning routine?
I get up at 7:30, shower and brush my teeth. If I have time I have coffee at home. If I don’t, I put my coffee in my keep cup and have my breakfast when I arrive at the office around 8:30–9:00.
So, when is the first wine of the day?
It depends. Tomorrow we’re going to have a tasting at 9:00 am. So, you definitely need a coffee first.
You must be really strategic then when brushing your teeth…
You don’t wanna taste toothpaste when you are drinking wine… [laughs]
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I think I have kind of created my own advice. I follow my motto, which is to be truthful to yourself. You can cheat everybody else but not yourself. Follow what feels right to you and do things for the right reasons.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who are very positive and very enthusiastic about what they do. If you look at my friends or people that I admire, they have a drive to do things. I think I have that as well. We all want to change the world, but we can’t. We can all bring our share to life and make other people happy around us. I get inspired by people who do this.
Some people would consider drinking wine a hobby. Do you have any other hobbies?
Wine is my full-time job. It’s my profession and also what I do in my free time. But I also like to do sports, like yoga, gym and running. I love to learn about lots of things. I also love travelling. People say that they like travelling, but I actually like the travelling part, like being on a train, going from one place to another. The actual journey.
Where is your favourite place to travel to in Finland?
About a year ago my dad and his wife bought a cottage by a lake. It’s a really special place. I really love it as I like to be in nature. There is so much nature in Finland: in many places, you can walk from your front door and in 10 minutes you’re in a forest. Even if these days I want to live urbanely and quite centrally, I do appreciate the other side as well where you can just breathe fresh air.
So, where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
Oh, I hate this question.
Okay, 11 years’ time.
[laughs] I don’t make life plans. Even if you had asked me four years ago what I’d be doing now I’d have had no idea. All I can hope from the future is that I can do stuff that I get inspired by, that is meaningful to me and with people that share the same passions with the same drive. I want to have fun. Every day at work is fun to me, because I do the thing that I love.