Stockholm’s Thoroughly Modern Romance with Wine

Stockholm is building its first, true wine culture from scratch, headed up by a brat pack of "no-fucks" somms and hot blondes.

It’s dim and crowded on a Sunday night at Stockholm restaurant and wine bar Rolfs Kök, and it’s filled—like the entire city of Stockholm—with beautiful people. Bottles of Champagne, magnums of Burgundy and half-empty glasses and decanters stud each of the tables, like candles on a birthday cake.

It’s a Swedish-accented fairytale land of fancy wine, words I don’t quite understand and hot blondes. Lots of them.

I’ve been brought along by a Swedish friend and thrust into a chair at a long, raucous table filled with Stockholm’s top sommeliers—the table with the most empty glasses, nicest sweaters and fabulously symmetrical haircuts. A full glass is in my hand. Greetings are exchanged. And I find myself across from three girls not much older than I am, talking quickly in accented English, telling me of their recent trips to Paris, their weekend in Copenhagen, and the whirlwind romance one of them just had with an American restaurateur who whisked her away to Sweden’s most famous destination restaurant, Fäviken Magasinet.

You wouldn’t know by looking at the magnum-studded tables that, 40 years ago, wine wasn’t a part of Swedish dining culture. In fact, the Swedes really didn’t dine out. The country’s food culture mostly revolved around simple Swedish staples consumed in cozy home kitchens and served with beer. Dining in restaurants was reserved for special occasions.

“The Swedish have always eaten because we need to survive,” says Johan Agrell, the former sommelier at Fäviken Magasinet and now the co-owner of Gaston, a new wine bar in Stockholm. As a child growing up in the Swedish countryside, dinner for Agrell meant meatballs, stew and herring, pea soup and pancakes every Thursday. “The first time I ate in a proper restaurant, I was a grownup already.”

By the time he was in his 20s things had begun to change drastically. The continued growth of the Swedish economy (which has, for years, outpaced its European neighbors and the U.S.) cracked open a new world for his generation, allowing them the means to travel and eat and drink in other countries. Stockholm began borrowing from Southern Europe. Restaurants got more casual; the food got better. And when, in 1994, the government-run wine and spirits importation monopoly was abandoned, niche wine importers began proliferating, providing restaurants with the ability to find—and stock—the wines that they wanted to.

In his mid 20s he became a front-of-the-house manager at Stockholm’s Michelin-starred Esperanto. Three years ago, at 27, he joined Fäviken Magasinet, building its wine and service program from scratch. Yearning to be near his friends, he returned to Stockholm in May to become a partner in Gaston, which is part of three casual offshoots of Frantzén, one of the city’s most forward-thinking fine dining restaurants. He and two other sommeliers are responsible for the wine program.

“Twenty years ago, there was only a handful of sommeliers in Sweden,” says Jonas Sandberg, the president of Sweden’s Sommelier Guild and the head sommelier of Sturehof in Stockholm. “Now, there’s a new generation of very passionate, well-traveled sommeliers that have networked internationally.”

As a result, they’re continuing to draw from the cities they visit—like Copenhagen, which has become an incubator for the natural wine movement. “The gap is closing between Stockholm and Copenhagen,” says Pontus Elofsson, the former wine director of Noma and now a major importer of natural wines to Sweden.

Paris’s néo-bistrot boom of affordable, innovative (and casual) restaurants, like Le Chateaubriand, has also had a tremendous influence on Stockholm. It’s inspired sommeliers, like Agrell, to leave the confines of fine dining to open up their own bars and restaurants—the sort that aren’t afraid to blast the Wu Tang Clan during service.

New York, of course, has been on the same itinerary for some time. And its new favorite tale—Fancy Restaurant Opens Casual Offshoot, Crowd Goes Wild—almost always stars a next-gen sommelier plotting to upend the culture of shiny-shoed, Windsor-knotted wine service. The difference is that while the same narrative is, in some ways, defining Stockholm’s most forward-thinking new restaurants and wine bars, the arbiters of wine taste and culture have nothing to upend. They have no long-standing wine tradition, no backyard wine region to pledge allegiance to, no homegrown preconception of what a sommelier should be.

“Instantly, one wants to compare Stockholm to Copenhagen,” says Jasmine Hirsch of Sonoma’s Hirsch Vineyards, who has found an open audience for her wines in Stockholm. “But the sommeliers [in Stockholm] are less enamored with the idea of the obscure,” she says. “They seem more concerned about what’s good with the food.” This is, in part, due to the kinds of restaurants popping up around the city: smaller, casual places where food and wine are intimately connected.

Chez Betty is a prime example. After a trip to Provence—and after falling in love with the food via an old woman named Betty—Micke Gröndal and Linus Ahlstedt decided to open a place in Stockholm with their own money. They bought an old pizzeria with a wood-burning oven. One of the pair works the kitchen, another in the dining room. For over a year, they didn’t have any other employees.

Owners like Gröndal and Ahlstedt, Agrell says, “will do anything to make a living” out of their new ventures. “If you have no money to buy lobster, you’ll buy fish. And that fish needs to be seasonal, because it’s cheaper in season. You won’t pay for the white tablecloths, or for a staff of 100. You’ll focus on the few things that are the most important to you”—like good food and wine, or quality service— “and then, finally, you can be affordable.”

Another, less self-imposed constraint that’s had the effect of inadvertently bolstering Stockholm’s restaurant scene is the Systembolaget, the government-owned monopoly on the retail sale of wine and liquor. While the abandonment of government-controlled importation restrictions allowed for a flood of more interesting wines to the market, many of these new importers only sell to restaurants. Finding good wine retail is still difficult. “If people want the good stuff, they need to go out to get it,” says Elofsson.

This has helped push people out of their homes and into these new ventures, where they can drink everything from back-vintage cru Beaujolais to boutique California pinot noir producers like Hirsch and Radio-Coteau to the wines of cult Friulian producer Miani, in a setting casual enough that it invites sweatpants.

While this sort of diversity—and its tie to more casual restaurants—is becoming a commonplace narrative in other cities, like New York, what’s happening in Stockholm is less about evolution. It’s about emerging for the first time, driven by the sort of enthusiasm that only beginnings can breed.

“We are a strong group of very passionate, young, driven, no-fucks somms that think that we can change the world,” says Sandberg. “And if we think so, we can. And we will.”

[Photo: Stockholm’s Gaston during service]

Brette Warshaw is the managing editor of Food52. Her favorite things are old, kitschy cookbooks, weeknight dinner parties, and cookies. She always does her serious cooking with a glass of wine in her hand.