Miami may not seem like a natural environment for wine entrepreneurs to flourish, but meet a few and you may want to raise a glass.
Make no mistake: These entrepreneurs aren’t doing things the way it has always been done in the $300 billion global wine industry. Maybe it’s being outside the well-known wine-making locales where innovative ideas can ferment more freely.
South Florida’s wine entrepreneurs have put their individual stamps on the centuries-old traditions. That might mean outsourcing tasks rather than having to own the expensive real estate for vineyards and tasting rooms — and finding innovative ways to bring the wine to small towns, and big cities, as the son of a well-known California winemaker has done.
How about a sparkling wine that is a third of the calories but no less pleasing to the taste buds? And one entrepreneur has found a better way to dispense wine and save the rest of the bottle for another day — or week — without losing any quality. Wine can be made totally off the grid, at 10,361 feet above sea level and at sea, as another entrepreneur has proved.
Still another food and beverage entrepreneur celebrates the French tradition of sabering, or opening, a bottle of champagne bottle just as Napoleon did with his sword — but safely.
They join a growing number of Miami-area companies in the wine, beer and spirits business — from Schnebly Redland’s Winery in South Dade to a dozen or so craft beer makers in the tri-county area to rum maker Atlantico and multinational Bacardi’s U.S. headquarters.
Others, like Miami business leaders Bruce Orosz, Dennis Scholl and Mark Tobin, have founded their own labels. Add to that mix a number of tech startups with platforms for data gathering, marketing, selling, delivering — or just bringing the party to you.
Miami-based Southern Wine & Spirits was the largest U.S. distributor even before its 2016 acquisition of Glazer’s, a distributor based in Dallas. It’s now called Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits and still a critical piece in the success of Miamians’ new brands.
Let’s meet some of South Florida’s startup wine entrepreneurs:
PLUM: ‘BETTER THAN THE BOTTLE’
Tech entrepreneur David Koretz’ love for the complexities of wine started at a young age.
The serial entrepreneur launched his first company, a consumer electronics distribution business, as a teen. Yet how was he going to order the wine at business dinners he hosted without the sommelier asking for his ID? He taught himself about wine so he could impress the sommelier with very sophisticated wine requests. It worked every time. “From 17 to 21, I was growing my company with underage drinking.”
A couple of successful startups later, Koretz founded and ran Mykonos Software, sold it for about $80 million in 2012 to Juniper Networks and stayed on in Silicon Valley as a Juniper executive for a while, also treating himself to a little winery in Napa Valley.
In his travels, he began to notice how the “wine by the glass” experience was poor, particularly in hotels. You have the choice of cheap wine in the minibar or long waits for room service. By contrast, for coffee, you hit a button.
“Why don’t I have a great experience for wine like I do with my coffee? And my wine is a lot more expensive,” he said. That started the entrepreneurial wheels rolling again.
When Koretz told friends and colleagues he was leaving Silicon Valley for Miami in early 2015 to pursue a wine-related startup, it didn’t go over well.
“Florida — everyone thought that was code for retirement. Nobody thought I was serious about building a business,” he said.
But Koretz gathered a tech team, including top engineers from Google, Amazon’s Lab126 and Motorola. “Not your normal wine appliance team ... What we wanted to do is build the most advanced appliance ever built.”
After a couple of years of development, and his team at Plum (plum.wine) recently introduced the first appliance that preserves, chills and serves wine by the glass. Plum also raised $9 million in funding earlier this year to help the startup expand into the luxury hotel sector. The round was led by Khosla Ventures, and included locally based Las Olas Venture Capital, as well as wine and hospitality industry veterans.
With the Plum appliance, you drop up to two bottles in and close the door. Cameras connected to a computer photograph each label, identifies the vintage, varietal, region, winery and wine and automatically chills it to the perfect serving temperature. On a 7-inch touch screen, the Wi-Fi capabilities allow Plum to offer tasting notes, such as a video of the wine maker sharing his thoughts.
The moment you pull a cork out of a bottle, the oxidation process starts, so in Plum’s appliance, a motorized needle instead pierces the cork, pressurizes the bottle and sucks the wine out without introducing oxidation, Koretz said. “So what we have done is built something where you can drop in two bottles of wine, put it on tap and it is perfect.”
Anyone with a wine collection (there are 20 million, give or take) or consumers who live alone or in split households (one prefers red, the other white) would be the market for the luxury consumer product. In pre-order sales, Koretz said he sold out of the $1,500 machines, priced about the same as a super automatic espresso maker.
But Plum’s real potential is in the 4 million luxury hotel rooms around the world, Koretz said, allowing customers to hit a button and have a glass of fine wine on the balcony for sunset.
Plum has signed deals with Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Intercontinental, Caesars and others — 18 hotel deals so far. Its appliances are in Miami Beach’s Confidante hotel, too.
“Wine is often seen as a pretentious and fancy thing. The definition is a good wine is a wine you like and bad wine is a wine you don’t,” said Koretz, who has well over 1,000 bottles in his “drinking cellar.” “I love the idea of making wine more accessible.”
Plum will be announcing a large retail partner soon, allowing consumers to buy Plum in a retail store, Koretz said. Still, trying to change 300 years of history isn’t easy.
“Wine is celebratory, it’s romantic, everyone loves to pull the cork. We decided to rise to the occasion and build an experience that was better than the bottle.”
DANIEL COHN WINE: ‘THAT SUBTLE FORCE’
Dan Cohn set out to make the best possible wine at the best possible price.
That meant forgoing the overhead of expensive real estate and fancy tasting rooms and going back to the basics that he learned from his famous rock music producer-turned-Sonoma Valley winemaker father, Bruce Cohn: Make a great wine, and it will hit all the right notes. You will just know it.
So a few years ago when Cohn, who lives in West Palm Beach, set out to make his own brand, called Bellacosa, he did things a little differently than his highly successful dad. He’s bringing the California wine country to the people, whether its in Chicago; Flagstaff, Arizona; or Chattanooga, Tennessee.
And he’s doing it all from South Florida, backed by several friends well-known in Miami banking and real estate circles — Sergio Rok, Jimmy Tate and Javier Holtz.
“When I decided it was time to make my own brand, they got behind me and said ‘let’s launch something and let’s launch something great,’ ” said Cohn, who admitted that the sale of the family winery, B.R. Cohn, was a catalyst. Rok is on the board of Daniel Cohn Wine Co. (danielcohnwine.com).
“Bellacosa” means a beautiful thing. Its label states: “Sharing wine with friends and families creates wonderful moments and lasting memories and wine is the subtle force that brings everyone together.”
“I feel like Bellacosa is that subtle force,” Cohn said.
Instead of buying land, Cohn signed five-year contracts with growers, hired the winemakers, started forming a team, designed the linen-embossed label and chose the cork. “It all has to be synonymous with quality,” he said.
To launch, Cohn hit the road — 308 days last year in a 41-state launch. “I lap the country kind of like going to dinner,” he said. And he is keeping up the pace this year, too, he said in a phone interview, somewhere between Manchester, New Hampshire, and Boston.
Each stop consists of 10 to 12 visits to retailers and restaurants and often an in-store demo in the evening, he said. The next day he is off to another city.
It’s all about the personal touch. “Servers can put it on the table and say ‘Try my buddy Dan’s wine’ instead of another faceless brand,” Cohn said.
Bellacosa was named the hottest brand of 2016 in Wine Industry Monthly and then in Forbes. “That was validation that I needed when I am eating Taco Bell between Iowa and Kansas telling myself it is all going to be worth it,” Cohn said.
Cohn said he tries to over deliver on the price point. A $25 bottle should drink like a $50 bottle and look like a $100 bottle, he said. The first release was a cabernet, a limited-release reserve has been added to the line and others are on the way.
“Now it’s neat for me to have Joe’s Stone Crab pouring the wine ... and being able to go out with Wayne Chaplin [CEO of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits] and Sergio and Javier and Jimmy Tate and say, ‘Look what we accomplished, we really are building a lifestyle brand together.’ It has been a lot of fun building it together as friends.”
Cohn also credits his grounding in the business.
“I spent the first 10 years of my life in a wine tank with some of the most-prominent winemakers of our time. It was about artistic freedom and creativity and perseverance to make the best possible wine,” he said. His father would bring home demo records of bands he was managing in the ’80s and they would try to pick the hit song. “We would go into the studio to hear the guys singing the same line over and over until it was right — and they knew it instantly.
“I see the same look when people drink the wine as when they were making the song. That’s that subtle force, it’s a capturing of the moment.”
SYLTBAR: ‘OUR HAPPY HEALTHY DAILY JUICE’
Syltbar’s founders learned quite by accident that their popular sparkling wine had a distinct competitive advantage.
About three years ago, a neighbor who was diabetic told them she had no ill effects from drinking the wine. “You have to do something with this,” she told Claus and Regina Blohm.
Intrigued, the Blohms took their wine to a diabetes researcher at University of Miami to analyze. The result?
That’s when they found out their product had no added sugar, no added sulfites and is vegan. “We were shocked. We had no idea,” Claus said.
A six-ounce glass of the Syltbar Premium Prosecco has 49 calories. The Rosé, added to the product line in 2015, has 63. Most champagnes run 150 to 160 calories a glass, Claus said.
Even Syltbar’s Italian producer didn’t realize the caloric benefit — he didn’t even understand why it was important.
“Sometimes when you work very very hard, you sometimes just get lucky,” Claus said.
The Blohms began to market it that way, and sales of Syltbar (syltbar.com) climbed.
“People are very aware and very health conscious. We call it our happy healthy daily juice because it makes people feel good,” Claus said. “We do tastings in Whole Foods. The key point is, once people have tasted it, they are sold.”
The Blohms said they once did a blind tasting with their sparkling wine and a popular brand that sells for $50 to $60 a bottle. Of the 150 people who participated, all but 13 preferred Syltbar, Claus said, “and when they found out about the price, they were shocked.”
Claus and Regina, both born in Hamburg, Germany, arrived in Miami from Germany in 2010.
“We saw there was room for a quality product so we started on our own. We did everything from scratch — as importers, distributors, our own warehouse, our own licensing,” Claus said. Breakers Master Sommelier Virginia Philip declared it delicious and they were off. “Southern Wine & Spirits [now called Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits] discovered us in 2014.”
Today, Syltbar’s two sparkling wines are sold in 16 states. You can find the wines on the top shelf at Whole Foods; the premium prosecco retails for $19.99 and the rosé is $21.99.
Syltbar’s wine is also sold at Eden Roc, Nobu’s, Trump properties, Biltmore, Capital Grille, InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental, The Standard, Villa Versace, the Breakers and others. This year, Syltbar expects to sell more than 100,000 bottles of the prosecco and rosé, what the Blohms call their “Mr. and Mrs.”
Ahead? More branding, more distribution, Claus said. “We hope to cover all the states.”
BLEND CRAFT WINES AND CONTINENTAL DIVIDE: REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Jeffrey Maltzman is a Coral Gables lawyer, Napa Valley winemaker and a Colorado and California eco-preneur. Somehow the roles all roll together.
Maltzman won the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in 2012 for his idea to create “winemaker experiences” for cruise ships. He did just that, and today those experiences are on six of MSC’s cruise ships, as well as land versions weekly in two of his wineries and as part of special events. In the popular experiences, guests learn from a professional winemaker and make their own blends, label and all, to take home.
At the time of winning the Challenge, Maltzman’s family already owned a small winery in Napa Valley. He also is a lawyer for clients in the travel industry and once worked on a cruise ship. That’s how the idea for Blend Craft Wines’ Winemaker Experiences came about.
After winning and developing the Winemaker Experiences, Maltzman also grew his winery business. In 2013, he started a second winery, Gold Creek, in the Sierra Foothills close to where the precious metal was discovered during the California Gold Rush. The winery is run off the grid, powered by solar energy. “We use sheep to eat the weeds. ... It is very much like farming used to be,” Maltzman said
He added that business to Blend Craft Wines (blendcraftwine.com), which now includes the two wineries and the Winemaker Experience business.
Then, a chance meeting on Breckenridge’s Main Street during a family vacation in Colorado set another business venture into the making. Later, on Christmas Eve 2016, he and new business partner Kent Hutchison opened Continental Divide Winery, where grapes are grown in the Grand Valley High Desert in Colorado, near the Utah border. They make the wines in Summit County near Breckenridge. It’s a family affair, with their wives and kids involved in the business, too.
Maltzman believes Continental Divide, at 10,361 feet, is the highest altitude working winery in the world. “It’s a race to see if the grapes will fully ripen before the snow comes because you have to harvest before the snow,” he said. “Most times it works out, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
But there are advantages, too: Oxygen is the enemy of wine, but there is 30 percent less oxygen to start with there.
“We also use every green technology we can find. We ferment the wine in a special kind of fermentor that takes 90 percent less water than a traditional one and uses almost no chemicals for cleaning and sterilization. We use our alpine conditions to naturally refrigerate the wines. We try to source as much of our fruit as we can from certified sustainable vineyards, as well as our Gold Creek Winery, one of only two off-grid wineries in the country.”
Blend Craft Wines sells about 500 cases a year from the California wineries (maltzmanfamilyvineyards.com), but the Colorado company, a separate entity, will sell about 2,500 cases this year (breckwinery.com). It sees about 1,000 people a month in its tasting rooms in Breckenridge and Fairplay, Colorado. It has an active wine club where Floridians are the third-largest customer base, after Colorado and Texas.
Or if you are sailing on the MSC Seaside in the Caribbean this winter, Maltzman’s Winemaker Experience likely will be on the itinerary.
COUP DE SADE: ‘IT’S A LITTLE REBELLIOUS’
It’s a good bet you have never sabered a bottle of champagne. Jean Paul Desrochers, a co-founder of Coup de Sade, is out to change that.
Desrochers said his new company has perfected the art and safety of sabering a bottle of champagne and will be launching in Miami within the next month.
Sabering is the French art of opening a bottle with a French “saber” or knife as a celebratory gesture (the technique involves striking near the lip of the bottle with the correct technique — do not try this at home!). Napoleon sabered the fine bubbly with his sword on his ride to victory, the story goes.
Yet, even in France, sabering is not done very much anymore because, well, one can get hurt.
Desrochers’ Coup de Sade (coupdesade.com) is a premium line of champagne in a bottle engineered to saber safely. It took three years of research and development and patent work, said Desrochers of Miami, who founded the company with Ryan Tu of San Francisco.
“The way you open a bottle of champagne actually has not changed in 200 years,” Desrochers said. “We have revolutionized the way you can safely and reliably open a bottle. Any novice can grab our bottle and saber it for the first time.”
Desrochers is a former technology analyst who most recently worked in the food and beverage industry in executive positions with Barton G and 50 Eggs/50 Eggs Capital. “As an investor, I look at industries that have not changed and where you can use tech and innovation to enhance the customer experience and allow for mass adoption. It was a natural transition for me.”
Coup de Sade sells a premium 2004 vintage brut and a juliet rosé, both handcrafted in one of the last independently owned production houses in Champagne, France. Once the bottle is sabered, an included safety spout can be attached as another layer of protection.
Sabering isn’t for those light in the wallet. The suggested retail price for the Coup De Sade gift box in stores is $249 to $279 for the brut and $419 to $449 for the rosé, including the sabering tool and safety spout. Restaurants are selling the brut for $600 to $800 and the rosé for $800 to $1,000, and nightclubs are offering special celebratory bottles that glow of the brut for $900 to $1,100 and the rosé for $1,200 to $1,600 a bottle, he said.
“Our nightclub version is luminous .... and is sabered with a glow saber so it makes the club experience very unique,” Desrochers said. “Millennials and clubgoers love it.”
The company launched in Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace in June, and now have more than 40 accounts in that city, from Total Wine to high-end nightclubs. It launched in California in August, and now it is headed for Texas, Chicago, Miami and New York by New Year’s Eve.
Ahead? Perhaps Paris, Shanghai and other international markets. Coup de Sade is headquartered in France with offices in Miami and San Francisco, where the other co-founder resides. Republic National of Pompano is the Florida distributor.
“It’s not only about the champagne,” Desrochers said. “It’s about celebrating achievements, victory — it’s a little rebellious.”
So there you have it: Five innovators, far from the celebrated vineyards, out to change the way you enjoy your wine. We’ll drink to that.
Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg
U.S. wine industry by the numbers
$5 billion: Value of grapes, the highest valued fruit crop in the U.S.
25,000: Number of farms that grow grapes.
7 million: tons of grapes U.S. produced in 2013.
350 million: Gallons of wine produced in 2014; 90 percent of it is produced in California.
8 percent: U.S.’s share of the world’s wine production.
$35 billion: Sales in wine consumption in the U.S., the world leader.
$1.55 billion: U.S. wine exports.
30 million: Winery visits annually in the U.S.
SOURCE: WineAmerica, a wine industry trade association
Florida wine industry facts
Number of wineries: 88
SOURCE: WineAmerica, a wine industry trade association