Michael Machat admits he didnâ€™t follow the traditional route into the wine businessâ€”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. â€œI had this idea that it would be cool if somebody had a wine called â€˜Vampireâ€™ and they made it in Transylvania. It was so obvious, I thought surely somebody had done it,â€ 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 couldnâ€™t pronounce. â€œA lot of people in the wine business donâ€™t understand why people drink wine at all. Theyâ€™re so wrapped up in what theyâ€™re making they forget the purpose is to have fun. People want a buzz, they want to change their state of consciousness,â€ he says. â€œWhen young people want to buy wine, they just want to get something to drink. Theyâ€™re looking around the store and Vampire brings up lots of pleasurable connotations in their minds. They donâ€™t know what else to drink so they buy Vampire. Itâ€™s cool, we get the new drinkers.â€
Vampire is indeed succeeding with that demographic, according to Machatâ€™s market research. He says 40 per cent of customers buying Vampire, which typically sells for less than $10 a bottle, are under 30. Thatâ€™s unusual in a business where most consumers are 40 and older. Machat started the company while living in England in the mid-â€™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 decisionâ€”relocate to Romania himself or start sourcing his grapes from a West Coast vineyard. He chose the latter option earlier this year. â€œBeing 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,â€ he says, adding the company broke through the $3-million mark in revenue last year.
Today, Vampire Vineyards is a â€œvirtual wineryâ€ 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 â€œblood of the vineâ€ because everybody has a different idea of what a vampire looks like. â€œIf we commit ourselves to one version, we turn off those who have a different conception. Weâ€™re talking a thin line. Itâ€™s easy to market it in a silly way and make it cheap looking and totally uncool,â€ he says.
Machat says when you buy a bottle of Vampire, youâ€™re not just getting â€œjuice in a bottle.â€ â€œYouâ€™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,â€ he says.
Vampireâ€™s brand is reinforced through its websiteâ€”vampire.com, naturallyâ€”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 didnâ€™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 â€œVamp NRG.â€ He says the red vodka is particularly impressive because when itâ€™s swirled around a glass, the â€œlegsâ€ that come down look like little drops of blood dripping into the bottom. â€œSome bartenders didnâ€™t like it because it turned their hands red (when it spilled) but some customers really got off on it. You get red lips, itâ€™s like drinking blood,â€ 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 â€œthe kingâ€ 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. â€œThatâ€™s difficult in the wine business,â€ he says. â€œVampire distinguishes itself readily from everyone else in the pack. It really pops off the shelf in late October but itâ€™s hard to think youâ€™ll find it as alluring on November 1st as you did on October 31st.â€
He says the challenge for Vampireâ€™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. â€œIf it was my brand, Iâ€™d probably try to do a lot of promotions around full moons,â€ he says. Hadley-Beauregard is a bigger fan of the red vodka, calling the addition of a color to a neutral spirit â€œinnovative.â€ “Itâ€™s pretty brave. I think it will bring them some good results, it could do very well on the retail shelf,â€ he says.
By RenÃ©e Alexander. Renee is a freelance business and lifestyle writer based in Winnipeg, Canada.