Michael Machat admits he didn’t follow the traditional route into the wine business—that is, developing a nose for grape varieties and building a plant, followed by coming up with different blends and brands.
Instead, the president and founder of Beverly Hills-based TI Beverage Group, parent company to Vampire Vineyards, got his start when a blood-colored light bulb went off in his head. “I had this idea that it would be cool if somebody had a wine called ‘Vampire’ and they made it in Transylvania. It was so obvious, I thought surely somebody had done it,” he says. Others may have thought of it but nobody followed through, so Machat was able to sink his teeth into the concept.
He wanted a name that would attract young people who wanted to drink wine but were put off with the shelves full of monikers they couldn’t pronounce. “A lot of people in the wine business don’t understand why people drink wine at all. They’re so wrapped up in what they’re making they forget the purpose is to have fun. People want a buzz, they want to change their state of consciousness,” he says. “When young people want to buy wine, they just want to get something to drink. They’re looking around the store and Vampire brings up lots of pleasurable connotations in their minds. They don’t know what else to drink so they buy Vampire. It’s cool, we get the new drinkers.”
Vampire is indeed succeeding with that demographic, according to Machat’s market research. He says 40 per cent of customers buying Vampire, which typically sells for less than $10 a bottle, are under 30. That’s unusual in a business where most consumers are 40 and older. Machat started the company while living in England in the mid-’90s and though he began buying his grapes elsewhere, he eventually sourced them from Transylvania, a real live region in Romania with a population of more than seven million people.
Once he moved to California and the company started growing, he was confronted by a major decision—relocate to Romania himself or start sourcing his grapes from a West Coast vineyard. He chose the latter option earlier this year. “Being nearby, I can check on the quality control. To take it big we have to be reliable and have good, consistent quality in the bottle,” he says, adding the company broke through the $3-million mark in revenue last year.
Today, Vampire Vineyards is a “virtual winery” as the production of its merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, and white zinfandel blends is outsourced to a winery in nearby Paso Robles. He says the company has been careful not to use any vampire images in promoting its “blood of the vine” because everybody has a different idea of what a vampire looks like. “If we commit ourselves to one version, we turn off those who have a different conception. We’re talking a thin line. It’s easy to market it in a silly way and make it cheap looking and totally uncool,” he says.
Machat says when you buy a bottle of Vampire, you’re not just getting “juice in a bottle.” “You’re getting all the unconscious associations that go along with the vampire theme. If somebody just wants a bottle of wine, they can buy a bottle of two-buck chuck. We blend our drinks with romance, intrigue, and adventure,” he says.
Vampire’s brand is reinforced through its website—vampire.com, naturally—which includes a quasi-fictional history of the vineyard and a virtual store selling Vampire wine glasses and DVDs of classic blood-sucking movies such as Dracula, Blade, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Machat didn’t stop there with his colored beverages. He subsequently launched a pair of vodkas called Vampyre, one white, the other red, and a sports energy drink called “Vamp NRG.” He says the red vodka is particularly impressive because when it’s swirled around a glass, the “legs” that come down look like little drops of blood dripping into the bottom. “Some bartenders didn’t like it because it turned their hands red (when it spilled) but some customers really got off on it. You get red lips, it’s like drinking blood,” he says.
Vamp NRG (short for energy), meanwhile, is a black cherry-flavored beverage competing in the same category as Red Bull. Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, principal at Vancouver-based Brandever Strategy Inc., says Vampire will certainly be “the king” of all wines consumed on Halloween. His concern, however, is its theme implies strict seasonality, leaving it prone to a boom and bust sales cycle. “That’s difficult in the wine business,” he says. “Vampire distinguishes itself readily from everyone else in the pack. It really pops off the shelf in late October but it’s hard to think you’ll find it as alluring on November 1st as you did on October 31st.”
He says the challenge for Vampire’s marketing team is to get creative and expand the ppropriateness of their sales the rest of the year. He even suggests a starting point. “If it was my brand, I’d probably try to do a lot of promotions around full moons,” he says. Hadley-Beauregard is a bigger fan of the red vodka, calling the addition of a color to a neutral spirit “innovative.” “It’s pretty brave. I think it will bring them some good results, it could do very well on the retail shelf,” he says.
By Renée Alexander. Renee is a freelance business and lifestyle writer based in Winnipeg, Canada.