Jeffrey Maltzman has found a way to plant the Napa Valley winery experience on cruise ships.
He believes he is just the one to navigate this business to success, as he bridges both industries. For five years in his late teens and early 20s, he was a program director aboard cruise ships - 19 of them. "It was so much fun, but people kept telling me it was time to get a real job," said Maltzman.
Then, after getting a law degree from Stanford, he became a maritime lawyer, and has been representing cruise lines for 25 years. In addition, he and his wife, Ana Maltzman, own a small winery.
Maltzman's plan for Blend Craft Wines, a Coral Gables-based startup offering wine-themed programs for cruise ships, took the top honor in the Business Plan Challenge - Challenge Champion - because he placed first in the judges' vote and had the most votes overall in the Peoples' Pick.
The company's flagship service is called the Winemaker Experience, where guests make their own blend.
"Ours is the first wine-themed activity that is truly participatory and interactive, where guests are doing more than tasting and learning about wine - they are actually touching it, feeling it, creating and walking away with a product that is the result of their own creativity," the 51-year-old Maltzman said. They even help design their own label.
Are we sure this isn't just an excuse to get back on the cruise ship?
Actually, Blend Craft Wines fills a need in today's competitive cruise industry, Maltzman said.
Cruise lines are always seeking new and interesting activities to set them apart from the pack and attract new cruisers, increasing onboard revenue opportunities at a time when cruise fares are down and fuel prices are up.
Wine drinkers and cruise passengers have a lot in common, too: "Wine consumption becomes more popular as people age. It becomes the preferred alcoholic beverage by the time they hit about 45 or 50 years old. . . . Wine consumption is also significantly greater for people who earn more than $50,000 a year or have a college education. . . . The demographics of wine consumers and cruise passengers are really an ideal match," said Maltzman.
Judges praised the originality of the concept, depth of market research, strong connections to the industry and the clarity of the plan. They liked that Maltzman has fully beta tested the service but said the financials presented in the plan should go deeper.
Maltzman said his concept is tailor-made for cruise ships because his mobile blending bar can be rolled into any available space, even poolside on a beautiful day. The interactive activities are short but educational, appealing to passengers with tight activity schedules craving more substance with their fun.
What sets his service apart from simple wine tastings is that California winemakers lead all the events.
Along with the Winemaker Experience, Blend Craft Wines' activities on board also include Winemaker Dinners and Wine 101, which are free 30-minute seminars such as an introduction to winemaking and one on starting your own small winery, with post-cruise revenue opportunities tied to these.
But there's more to setting up a business than wining and dining. There were alcohol licenses and permits to secure, 700-pound rolling wooden bars to design and build, and winemaker staff in California to recruit.
Once all that was in place, Maltzman gave the business a full test run - four weeks on MSC Cruises. More than 150 passengers took part.
"They loved it. Onboard it received really great feedback," said Gail Nicolaus, vice president of marketing and public relations for MSC Cruises (USA) in Fort Lauderdale. "Even for people who weren't huge wine people, the whole concept, the chemistry behind it, coming up with your own blend was appealing to passengers.
"When you think about cruising, food and wine and cruising all go together. It was just a perfect fit for what we wanted to do," she said, adding MSC is definitely interested in continuing it.
Lessons learned at sea included the need to refine the onboard marketing strategy because the Winemaker Experience is not something guests are used to seeing as an activity, and recruiting more bilingual winemakers. The company also tested price points and pricing structures, and found that $25 to $35 for the Winemaker Experience and about the same for a bottle of wine a passenger custom-blended was about right for the MSC demographic. "We learned what guests will happily pay," he said.
On MSC, the company tried an activity modeled after the wine valley movie, Bottle Shock, which was written by one of Blend Craft Wines' board members. Although the guests enjoyed it, it didn't attract enough people to justify the time and space allocation, Maltzman said, so that activity was dropped. (The movie involved a California vs. French wine tasting contest; Blend Craft Wines' activity included a similar test. By the way, like in the movie - spoiler alert - Napa Valley wines won.)
The company is now ready to pitch the concept to cruise lines. Maltzman said he is offering a full concession model, where Blend Craft Wines provides the wine, staff, equipment, basically everything. At the request of some cruise lines, it also offers a scaled-down version where Blend Craft Wines takes a cruise line's sommelier to Napa Valley for intense winemaker training and then licenses the concept to the line. "This appeals to the small cruise ships," Maltzman said.
Revenue streams would include activity fees, purchased bottles and wine club memberships. Maltzman projects about $6 million in revenue for a 10-ship contract, which would be shared with the cruise lines. Startup costs, he estimates, will run $300,000 to $500,000.
As far as scaling the business, Blend Craft Wine's long-term plan is to develop stand-alone shore side "Winemaker Experience" venues in U.S. winemaking and resort regions.
But first it's full speed ahead on building the business for cruise ships - the U.S. cruise industry serves 15 million passengers a year.
"I don't sleep a lot," quipped Maltzman, whose law firm, Maltzman & Partners, has offices in Coral Gables and Los Angeles and specializes in the cruise and resort industries. He recently hit 3 million miles on American Airlines.
His wife is a part-owner in Blend Craft Wines and an attorney in the Maltzman & Partners firm. One of their first dates, their engagement and their wedding were at California wineries. Two years ago, they founded Maltzman Family Vineyards, which produces Bordeaux-style red blends in limited production in California's Sonoma Valley. "We create our wine the same way we teach people to do it onboard. We contract with vineyards to buy grapes and we oversee the winemaking at a custom crush facility with professional winemakers guiding us," Maltzman said.
"I am what I would call an avid amateur winemaker who is smart enough to hire professionals."
This story was originally published May 7, 2012.