Timo Jokinen is no stranger to travel, having visited 156 countries, and in this interview Amanda Barnes discovers how while living in South East Asia he got started in the wine industry, which has led to him being a Grand Officier Maître Sommelier and restaurateur today.
What’s your first memory in wine, and how did you get into the wine industry?
Most probably back in the early 1980s when my company was at that time involved in the optical business – spectacles, sunglasses, and so on – and I travelled a lot to France, Germany and Italy.
I got involved in the world of wine in the late-1980s when living in Hong Kong – having also offices in Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. During one dinner with Chinese colleagues, we had terrible wines and I told everyone that perhaps we had to import to improve the quality of wines served, and a few weeks later the Chinese guys phoned me and asked when I was going to keep my word. So I started importing wine to Thailand, in 1987, and from then it all moved quickly.
You lived for many years in South East Asia. What was your relationship with wine while being based there?
As mentioned, I began my wine business there – within a couple of years, I was selling wine in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. I had a few wine shops in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai, and I did a wine and food TV-show for 52 weeks in 1995 in Thailand. And I started to write wine and food articles in 1996 and also judged my first wine competition that same year.
What inspired you to move back to Finland and get involved with the wine industry there?
We moved back to Finland at the end of 1997 due to family reasons, as my daughter was born in 1996 with heart problems and Helsinki was one of only two places where they had expertise in dealing with such problems – the other was Melbourne.
I started lecturing South East Asian Politics and Economics at a couple of Universities in Finland, then established my first wine cellar business in my home town of Tampere – www.vinoteekki.com. I also had my own wine column in Aamulehti, which is the second biggest newspaper in Finland, twice a month for two and half years. Since day one, I have also helped restaurants and importers with their portfolios, and have also been involved with private and corporate wine imports since my return to Finland. I’m still working with on-trade clients in Thailand.
You are rather well-travelled and have organised tours to everywhere from Vietnam to Cuba. Are there any wine countries which are particularly close to your heart?
Having being able to visit 156 countries in my life, it’s always difficult to choose one. But Italy and South Africa, for wine and wine tours, have always been my top destinations. The beauty of the destinations, the diversity of food and wine in both countries makes me happy. I have always enjoyed street food, food markets, simple local experiences and Italy and South Africa are great in this. I can’t forget France, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and New Zealand – they are all places where I do hope to get to at least once in the future.
In 2017, you were honoured as a Grand Officier Maître Sommelier by the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. Has anything interesting come out of the experience or has it changed your career in any way?
Grand Officier Maître Sommelier is such a great honour that even now it’s difficult to understand how fortunate I am. I have been a member and involved with Chaîne des Rôtisseurs over 30 years and established l´Ordre Mondial des Gourmets Degustateurs in Thailand some 30 years ago and my position at the moment is Grand Echanson Honoraire.
I’ve been associated with a lot of different organisations in my life and in 2017 I was also honoured to be made Supreme Knight by the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine USA. During my years in Asia, I served as Chairman of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce for a few years and as Vice President of South African Chamber of Commerce for a couple of years.
All this helped a lot to make contacts, meet people and get something done. Probably because of all this, I have met a great number of royals, presidents, PMs and the like.
How has the experience of 2020’s pandemic played out in Finland and what changes have you seen in the wine industry as a result? Do you predict any other changes over the coming year?
This is a very different issue from most other countries since we have a government monopoly on wine distribution. The monopoly is doing well, with a 30-35 % increase in sales – especially during that 10-week period when restaurants were closed. People have definitely been ordering much more from online stores or directly from the wineries, especially the younger generation and naturally the hope is that this will grow fast, so that the politicians have to consider the future of the monopoly.
Restaurants will be the biggest losers as people have been getting used to distance working and are increasingly ordering food and drink via the internet. It will be interesting to see how many restaurants will remain closed forever.
As we move into the New Year, what are your upcoming plans for 2021?
I’ve got lots of plans and have already done 10 episodes of Wine-TV, with wines available from the monopoly. Our restaurant, Winebridge, will have a weekly wine school and wine tasting program, as well as a cooking school twice a month. We’re also proud of the Special Jury Prize Star Wine List honour we received in October last year.
We host a jam session afternoon every second Saturday, with an average of 20-25 top international musicians playing for three hours, where we have a special wine promo. The Tampere Wine Fest will be held for the sixth time this year, and by next month or so we should know whether it will be held the traditional way or online. Last year, we still had a normal walk-in setup and got such good feedback when we held the Tampere Wine Fest at Winebridge Restaurant. Also, as the event was just for four days and much cosier than in exhibition halls – we will probably have the event a couple of times a year and keep it small and beautiful.
We’re also continuing monthly Diplomat Evenings – where an ambassador from a particular country gives a brief speech and then we enjoy a themed wine dinner of that given country. These events have been a really big hit and I now have 15 ambassadors waiting for their evening.
Some people ask me what the Winebridge concept is – I always answer, we don´t have a concept, we just do what is interesting and fun.