· By Rachel Clinesmith
Interview with Michael Machat (Vampire Vineyards)
When did you first become interested in vampires?
I’ve always liked the horror genre. I’ve liked scary movies since I was a kid. It wasn't so much that vampires stood out, I just liked scary movies. I didn't read Dracula until I was about 27. The first time I read it, I was like, blown away by how good that book was. And prior to that, the only kind of like vampires I liked were in horror films.
Awesome, so what would your favorite horror film be?
I like more of the supernatural horror films. When I was younger, I loved Rosemary's Baby. That was really scary.I thought the Exorcist was really scary at the time. When I was much younger, there was a hammer horror film. Something with a skull in it. The House on haunted Hill with Vincent Price, it was black and white.
I love that one! I watch that one to sleep sometimes!
And there was also, I think it was Shirley. The Turn of the Screw. Is that a horror film, too?
The Turn of the Screw?
Oh, I'm not sure I've heard of that one.
Or it was black and white one, I think by Shirley Jackson, turned into a movie about ghosts. I think the horror films with ghosts are actually scarier. So as a kid, those used to scare me. I didn't really know all that much about vampires until I read Dracula. Actually, I knew a little bit from watching films, but reading the book Dracula was a turning point.
What gave you the idea to start Vampire Vineyards originally?
After I read Dracula, I guess I had that story in my subconscious, and I was driving across the country with a friend of mine. I was moving back from LA to New York, and the idea just popped in my head. Actually, when we left, we were in Las Vegas West, winning at the casino, and we thought “Let's just hit Salt Lake City on the way back.” We were taking a loop. And just to stay up through the night, we're just talking and, and then the idea just popped into my head. “Hey, wouldn't it be a cool idea if someone came out with a wine called Vampire and got it from Transylvania?” And we spoke about the idea like the rest of the ride, pretty much on and off all the way back. Back then, the idea was, “what are we going to call it?” “Should I call it Vampire?” “Should I call it Dracula?” I think it was because I read the book Dracula, that put that idea into my subconscious.
Right. But it was a process. There was some pushback initially about the idea, right?
Yeah. Well, by the time we got to New York, I thought, “what a brilliant idea!” Whoever I told the idea to, thought it was a stupid idea. It was like saying, “Who would want to buy that?” and I kept saying, “Well, I would.” So. there was pushback. The other thing, too, is I knew nothing about the wine business, and I had no idea how to go about doing it. But the idea stuck. “This is a good idea!” I was surprised to find that nobody had done it. This was back in 1985, but even so, I was surprised nobody had ever done this before. So eventually I decided that I would do it.
I think those are the best ideas! That's very much the way I design products, too. It's like I want to create what I want to buy. My reaction is always, how is no one else made this yet, right?
Yeah. Because right now you can see a lot of wines out in the market now with names that are different. Back in 1985, it was like irreverent to call a wine Vampire. That just wasn't done in the wine business. All the wine labels were a lot more serious, right? It's kind of like you had to put on a serious face, and you weren't supposed to have fun. You were supposed to just pay attention to the to the wine. To study it. And I just spoke differently. I always liked good wine.
Actually, I was growing up with wine. My wine taste was evolving then. I liked good wine, but I didn't like the snobbery that was wine. So, in that sense, it was kind of intentional to spoof the business. I once had one of the vice presidents of Southern Wine & Spirits. I had a meeting in his office with Vampire Wine and Vampire Vodka. I was trying to persuade him to pick it up, to take it, to distribute it.
And we weren't getting anywhere with Vampire Wine. It was good just to get the meeting, but we weren't getting anywhere. So, then I picked up a bottle of Vampire Vodka, (which is red,) and I started explaining the attributes of it. I said, “Look, I mean, this is red, and I said, it's so red, that If you pour it in a glass, it has legs. It's just like blood drops of blood.” The guy, he just stood up from his chair and said, “You're spoofing the industry!” He was pissed off, and basically just threw me and my friends out of the office. And that was the end of that. In a sense, the whole thing of calling a wine Vampire, it does spoof the industry. Yet, it makes perfect sense because vampires drink blood and wine. You have the biblical references to blood and wine, and it all seemed like a perfect name for wine. That's why I was surprised that nobody had done it before then.
So eventually I figured out, “Well, I don’t even know where Transylvania was. I knew it was somewhere in Eastern Europe.” I learned. “Okay, it's in Romania. Who brings in Romanian wines?” and it was a company based in New York. So, I was able to get someone on the phone from them and he invited me up to see him. So, I had this great idea and now a contact that wasn't too far from New York City, and so I went to see him.
Pepsi has this, like, college campus. I was amazed how big it was. It had all this green space and everything. So anyway, I'm in the guy's office, and I tell him my idea. Actually, I guess I'm skipping ahead, because by that time I actually was selling before seeing this guy, Larry.
I tried calling Romania myself. I got someone in the government office in the export business, back when Romania was Communist, and they just had the one distributor per country.
So, they said, “Well, we already have a distributor from the US,” and I said, "What about England?” So now we got a distributor for England too. And they didn't want to sell anything to me because they already had a company for the entire United States, and an exclusive importer for the entire UK. So, I wasn't able to do anything there. But I moved to the UK in ‘85. I started up the idea, let's see, when I first started selling in ‘88, I guess. I figured, “I'm just going to do this anyway.” So, I got some other wine since I couldn't get any from Transylvania. I got some from Algeria, that was bottled in France. I got it from a French company. It was really full-bodied and really dark. It was really good wine. We put that in coffins. (That's when I started with the coffin.)
March ‘88 was the first time I started selling that. And the first sale was actually to MCA Records, Alice Cooper’s record company. He's coming out with a new single at the time, and the company that helped me do the artwork for Vampire Wine were the ones doing the artwork for his new single through MCA Records. And they said, “Hey, wouldn't this be a great promotion for the release of the record?” So, I was up for it. They bought the first 500 bottles, which came in the coffins, and they went out to several-hundred radio stations in the UK.
That's how that started, then we were selling it elsewhere. Eventually I came back here to California. Before coming back, when I was on a trip to New York, (I think it was maybe ‘89?) That's when I figured I'm going to call Montreal. Maybe they could help me do something after the wall came down in like ‘89 and ‘90. That's what prompted it. “I think I'm going to try doing some of this again,” I thought, and that's when I met Larry in person, and he was retiring at the time.
I showed him the wine, and the coffin, and he smiled. “Look,” he said, “(He) was retiring so I could introduce you to the people that we get our wine from in Romania. But you got to run it by my boss first.” So, he takes the President and they look at the vampire wine in the coffin box, and they passed on it. Basically, they weren't interested in selling one in Montreal.
They had quite a lot on their hands. So anyway, because of that, Larry still introduced me to the people in Romania. And a little bit after that, I went back to London. Then I flew to Romania. My first trip to Transylvania, back in 1990, or 91, I flew into Bucharest. Then we traveled, and visited vineyards in Romania.
So, for a while, the wine was being produced in Transylvania?
Yeah. When I was living in England, the wine was first from Algeria. Then I changed it to a wine which came from Italy. They were both good wines, but they had different tastes. I ran into some production issues with the second, with corks and stuff. (Over time, I learned so many things that can go wrong with wine packaging!) So anyway, I went from the French to Italian, and then it was San Jose.
Then, when I came back to the States, it took a while to get the financing together. Eventually I did, and then from 1995 through 2006, all Vampire wine came from Transylvania. I used to go to Transylvania, like once a year.
When did you start producing it in California?
We started producing California in 2006 or 2007. I think it was 2007. We had so many things that went wrong when I was getting the one from Romania. I found it really annoying. Kept switching wineries there. We had a lot of production issues. Basically, I didn't live there, I'd go there in March, and I'd sample some wine and say, “Okay, I love this wine. Give me this wine!” But by the time it arrived in August, it wasn't what I tasted back in March. That wasn't the only problem though, there’d be a whole bunch of other issues, just crazy things, corks that had problems coming out of the bottle or corks that just popped from the bottle by themselves. Just all sorts of issues. Then at one point, they started infringing on my trademark.
So, I figured, “okay, that's it!” My wife kept saying, “Why don't we just get it from California? We live in California anyway." So, we started doing that in 2007. We moved to production to Paso Robles, which is just like three and a half hours away. At the time, it was a good deal too. Those grapes came from Robert Mondavi's Vineyards. Robert Mondavi. The company had just sold to Constellation.
Constellation didn't want the vineyards. So, the farmers that were farming the vineyards, they had a lot of wine on them. I was able to get a good deal with them for several of the wines. Then we found some other source for about three years. Actually, we were getting the one from Paso Robles, and then we ended up switching to Napa because they wanted to concentrate on their own wine. After they sold me the excess of the wine that they had.
Then I met the people who I still do business with today. This is an Italian family based up in Napa, and they make amazing wine, they’re also amazing cooks and chefs. They have a restaurant up there, and they started producing the wine for me that I needed. So, they still make the wine and it's been the same people making it for, like, twelve years now.
So, it's basically been a consistent process of changes, of improving and overcoming these issues to make a better product in the long run.
Yes. Now we have product control. In Paso Robles, I could drive there in about three and a half hours, I could taste everything, and I had quality control. Napa? It's an hour flight to Napa. Funnily enough, though. It still would take, like, 3 hours to have to get to the airport early to fly an hour and then rent a car and drive there. So, it still ended up being like 3 hours and I could still go back and forth the same day. So, we've been doing that for a while.
Even though I had all the control, they make such good wine, I said, “Well, I don't really need to do anything.” I just go up there every once in a while, and everything's just great. Then it just became like, “okay, well, just make it like last year,” “just make it like last year". It's just like we got the quality control that I wanted but I couldn't get from Romania.
So, you definitely have had some challenges, but what would you say are the biggest challenges you've faced in business over the years?
Well, one of the other challenges is the distribution. Getting the product into the market has been hard. Right now, you can sell wine on the Internet. But before that, before the Internet even started, before people were selling wine online, I had to sell it to wine distributors and in turn to retailers. I used to call it the Halloween Problem, because a lot of the people that I ended up selling to, they didn't appreciate what I was offering. They thought, “Oh, this is just a Halloween gimmick”.
So, for a while, no one used the Halloween word, (I called it the H word), and they would call it a gimmick. It was just a gimmick. It was a hook. That got me into the stores, but a lot of the distributors and retailers were buying it, thinking that I was selling a pumpkin that would go and rot after Halloween. I'd have to say, “No, it's not like a pumpkin. It's more like a Turkey. You can eat Turkey year-round. You don't stop eating Turkey after Thanksgiving or Christmas, we can have a Turkey sandwich any day of the year, and it’s the same thing with Vampire Wine”.
So, getting through that mindset of the people and the gatekeepers and the distributors and retailers was very hard and frustrating. Obviously, there are people that liked it every day of the year. I just told them, “Look, vampire movies come out every day of the year”. And then the other thing I used to tell them is “you don't have to like vampires to like vampire wine”.
Calling the wine “Vampire” had good benefits in terms of making it easier to get it into the stores. But at the same time, it worked against me.
It stands out, but it can also kind of pigeonhole.
Yeah, it kind of depends. Though now that we can sell it online and, in a way, it's easier. So, I don't have to worry so much about what a distributor or a retailer may think. We've been in some stores, like the Publix supermarket chain had us in their stores for five years every day. I have about 45 to 50 distributors, so we sell it to the distributors.
So, they handle where it goes?
Yeah. I sell it to the distributors. I can sell it to the distributor in New York, and then that New York distributor, for example, can sell it to 1000 stores in the area. I don't know where it's selling it.
I've seen it in Sam's Club in Los Angeles. I know. I've seen it in stores across the country. I don't know precisely which ones, but I know I've seen it.
We're in some chains. I tend to know more about the chains because usually when it gets into one of the chains, somebody has asked me for, like, a special deal, and gets my attention.
You're a lawyer by trade, though, right?
Yeah. I'm a lawyer, too. That's probably made it easier for me. It's definitely made it easier for me to get the business going because I didn't have to rely on sales from Vampire wine to make a living. It was kind of like a sideline.
Also, you can protect yourself in contracts. It's one of the big growing things I've heard from a lot of businesses. That when they start working with bigger companies or doing distribution deals, they can get screwed over when they're small because they don't know any better. So that also probably helps.
Yes, that helps. And also protecting the trademark, right. That was a big thing as well.
Trademarks are hard to get?
Yeah, they're important. I ended up becoming a trademarker at the time. Just helping myself. I ended up getting involved and doing a lot of trademark law. I even took a client's trademark case to the US Supreme Court.
So, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment? Not necessarily the vampire wines, but just overall.
I Don't know! That's a hard question. Hopefully it hasn't happened yet. We're still working on it.
I like that.
We're still growing. We still have new legal challenges and another case I’m going to try to take the Supreme Court, and, of course, we're coming out with new vampire products. Like the Bloody Mary and some other cocktails, and other things in the line of vampire spirits. We're even looking at a Vampire Absinthe, actually.
Oh, I love that.
A Ready-to-drink Vampire Absinthe.
Okay. So already with the sugar and everything mixed into it?
Well, this one cocktail we're looking at would basically be like ginger and lime. Like an absence mule, instead of a vodka mule.
Yeah. I got to try the Bloody Mary premixed at Potions in New Orleans. That's really impressive.
Yeah. There are some issues. It's difficult putting a Bloody Mary in a can. We have issues with that. So, we're now looking at either putting into a 750-milliliter plastic bottle. We got quotes on that or just the other day, someone showed me a plastic can. How can you have a plastic can? It's plastic. It can't be a can. But I looked at it and it’s plastic in the shape of a can, and it has an aluminum lid.
And then once you wrap it, then nobody really knows. You can tell what it looks like when it's made from, anyway. But if we go that route, then that plastic can will solve the problems that we've had with the aluminum cans. Aluminum cans don't seem to like the Bloody Marys composition. There's too much tomato in it, and it's just some sort of chemical reaction where it ends up corroding the right something with a chloride or something. So, this could solve that problem or we do something else, like we're looking at the pouches, too. I guess you've seen the Fangria pouches Blood Bag Pouches? So that's an idea as well that we're looking at.
What is the single most important business advice you would give someone who's younger.
Don't give up.
Don't give up.
Don't give up.
Just keep going.
Just keep going, I guess. Like Thomas Edison. I think. I don't know if he said it, but maybe attributed to him as well is something like “1000 ways not to make a light bulb, but it's the 1001st time that you might get it.
Is there any project that you've always wanted to do, but haven't gotten to yet?
Yeah. I’d like to make a movie.
What kind of movie?
A horror film. In fact, that's how I got the original funding for Vampire wine. I was looking at doing a movie. I had a script about cannibals, and I had a friend of mine visiting me in London, and he’d earned a lot of money. We were drinking some wine at the time, and I told him, hey, what do you think of this movie idea? “I don't know about that”, he said. Then we were drinking more wine, and I already had the idea for Vampire Wine. In my head.
I said, "What do you think about this idea? Get some wine from Romania. Transylvania. Call it Vampire wine?”, and he said, “Now I'd invest in that!” Just like that. That set me off nice. So, movies are harder because you need a lot more money. I mean, I guess maybe not as much money today, but they take such a long time. But I love movies.
Well, you're in the right place living in Southern California.
Yes, but It takes such a long time to make one and everything that happens before it comes out. And then if you make the movie and it comes out bad, well, you have so much money put into it. It's not like “let's start over and remake it.”
But you don't spend your own money. I have a friend who is known for their Gothic ambient music. And he came out to LA, and started investing in movies. You'd be amazed at this point. I don't know about post-pandemic, but I've seen so many movies get made, and some of them are so low-budget. If they do well in the festival circuit, they can still end up getting distribution later on. It's all topsy-turvy. Not the way it used to be with films. Like, it can take less time to make a movie than it has for you on this journey of Vampire vineyards.
Yeah. When I came back from England in ‘92, there was like a two-year gap, then it started up again in ‘95. I met someone else to help finance it. So, we had, like, a two-year gap there, I guess. But, yeah, it's taken some time, and the brands evolved a lot. Changing labels, changing the “sauce”. It's been a fun journey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that you're currently working on?
We're going to be focusing more on spirits right now. We'll have Vampire Wine Spirits. I already have Vampire Vodka. Bloody Mary will be coming out again, soon. We'll have the Vampire Absinthe. Also looking at a Vampire Tequila. We like the idea, like, “Why don't we do a Vampire Tequila and sell it to Mexican restaurants” and go the that avenue? We’ve got Vampire Coffee and Vampire Chocolate. We'll be expanding those areas and going to other foods like chocolate or candies. I’d like to do more with the vampire coffee. Tell me those three things don’t go well together!
It's like wine, chocolate and coffee. Coffee wakes you up, and people like the wine just to calm down, I guess soothe themselves. And chocolate goes good with both coffee and wine. We won a lot of awards with our wine, too, gold medals.
You have the Cabernet, and the Vampire red wine blend. Do you have any others right now?
Yeah. So, when I moved the whole thing to California, I started actually making something. I told you about the people that make Vampire Wine. But I started making some wine myself under the “True Blood” name. So, I acquired the rights to True Blood, and there was a winery in Napa called the True Blood Winery, and there had been a fire right around 2008 or something like that. So, the people there, they had some issues with it and it was right around the time when the TV show was coming up.
So, I bought the winery and I started making True Blood. I didn't really know how to do it myself. So, I hired a winemaker and we started buying some really expensive grapes from various vineyards. This one guy gave it a 97 rating. That's my favorite one. We have True Bloods from Saint Helena, one True Blood from Mount Beaver, and the True Blood Napa Valley. That's also from the same area.
But we made some really good wines, and most are still available on our website. Those are our best wines. We Have great food, like a steak. So, I tell people they're like $60 wines, basically. But our True Blood Cabernet is, like, fantastic. We're also doing True Blood Dracula. We do a True Blood Pinot Noir from Canary. That's really good. That's one of the ones I made myself. But we bought the grapes and made that from scratch.
It's really good, too. We have three Pinots. We’ve got two Pinot Noir, Dracula Pinot and Vampire Pinot. They're all really good, but they're all different. We used to have the Vampire Lounge and tasting room. So, we used to offer that kind of like, wine fight. Speaking about that, we'll be reopening the Vampire Lounge. I’d love to do that again.
Awesome. I miss that!
So, when do that again. I want to do it bigger.
Do you have a location in mind?
I want to do it somewhere in LA. I want to do it in a bigger location than where the one in Beverly Hills was. So, a location that's large enough to have a small band, with a kitchen, and tables, and a bar.
Do you have a time frame for that or you're just working on it?
I'd say within the next two years, the first thing is we want to get the Vampire Bloody Mary and the Vampire Absinthe out, then the next Vampire Lounge would be after. That’s an awesome part of the thing, since we were thinking of having, like, an Absinthe Lounge right inside the Vampire Lounge. So, in other words, it'd be like we'd have a still there, and we'd show people how to make absinthe so they can have this show-and-tell, and they can have the whole absinthe experience, or they can just go sit at the regular bar and drink, or eat.
We need better absinthe in LA. We have I-don't-know-how-many gastropubs, but most of them do not absinthe properly. It's funny, I went to Portland to what was the Lovecraft Bar. (They changed that in during the pandemic,) but I asked them like, “Hey, do you have absinthe?” Because not everywhere here does, obviously. And they're like, “we have 16 varieties”. They were like, super annoyed that I would even ask, but they actually knew how to do it! So, I'm really excited to see that happen.
They did the whole thing with the sugar and the spoon and stuff?
Yeah. They had a ton of different brands, and it's like, Okay, so the Goths here serious about Absinthe. But in L.A., it's hard. Once in a while at Boardners, or one of the french-style venues, somebody will make it correctly. But the majority of the time, they just try to give it to you two on the rocks.
We have the recipe for the absinthe, by the way. So, I have everything sorted for that. But we have got to do the label. And the absinthe recipe that we have for that is ready-to-drink! And for the absinthe itself, I have got a distiller to make it.
What about Vampire NRG, can you tell me about that earlier project too?
That was mine, too. We got a lot of Vampires. We were selling that right around 2001? Yeah, I came out with a Vamp energy drink. Remember, at the time, it's like, do we call it Vamp, or do we call it Vampire? Ultimately, one of the reasons we called it Vamp is because it fit better on the can. So it became Vamp NRG drink, and we sold a lot of it. At first, we were selling it at Hot Topic.
That's what I thought. I remember seeing it.
We were in every Hot Topic, and we just kept selling. Our energy drink was like, cherry-flavored. It was like this black-cherry-flavor. It tasted good. I used to tell people it tastes much better than Red Bull. So, I came out with Vamp Energy Drink, and at the same time, we came out with Vampire Vodka, and then people would mix it together. We had a lot of fun selling those two. We did some film deals and stuff, like film promotions with it. Then, eventually, the Vamp NRG drink, we started selling to Seven-Elevens. At one point, Vamp Energy Drink was sold in, like, 5700 7-11's around the country.
Ultimately, however, that was a really difficult business. Doing that business, we started noticing that when we were in the 7-11's but it was hard getting the reorders from them, because we used to joke, “we’re like, three men in a truck” and we couldn't send a salesman to 7-11. We just did a deal with the national buyer and said, “Well, look, I can only put in once, and then you're going to have to go get the reorder.” So, we did REOs. We're coming in, but we're struggling, but that's such a competitive business.
Yeah, but the reorders for the wine just kept coming in by themselves. The wine ended up being easier on an ongoing basis. So, we just kind of, like, sold out of the Vamp energy drink and let it just naturally fizzle out and made a lot of money doing it, then went back to concentrating on the wine.
So, no plans to get back into the energy drink business.
No, not that one. But we have Dracola. I didn't talk about that before, but I play on Dracula lot. And we've had that in various permutations that sold, like, eight trucks-worth to a supermarket in Colorado. It did really well, but it was kind of time consuming, and there were some other production issues. But it's one of those things that we've left behind. We've never stopped selling Dracola, so we still have some. I think you can even buy some on our website, but it's just a question of having too much to sell, and what do we put our energy into?
Honestly, I need to find a better source for it. Maybe not a better source, but a bigger source for it. Which, I think I found actually, the other day. That's why I'm bringing it up now. We sell it to Colorado more. When we had the Vampire Lounge, that made more sense. So Dracola is out there, and it's kind of fun for us. We used to say that it was for the children of the night. We had two versions of it. One was a Brown color, just like cola. But we also made a version of it that was red. And that was the version that we sold into, like, the eight truckloads in Colorado. Right. That tasted good. If you close your eyes, it would taste like Cola. But if you looked at it and drank it, then you would swear it was cherry-flavour, but there's no cherry in it! It's just your mind playing tricks on you. Yeah. So that's something else we haven't quite figured out for when we come out with it again on a large scale. Is it just like a cherry cola that's brown? Or a cherry cola that's red? We could do a cherry cola and still keep it brown. Pepsi used to sell a clear color, and I think it's called Pepsi Clear. I remember drinking it. It just felt kind of weird. And I think everyone's just used to the color, but that's just caramel coloring instead of caramel flavour, and we just colored ours red.
Yeah. Exactly. Pepsi Co. does that. They did a Pepsi Blue and a bunch of other weird ones in the early 2000’s.
Yeah. That was weird, too. Same thing with the green ketchup. That was just so weird.
They did everything like that in the 90’s, like the weird colored French fries and everything was like multicolored. That was just the 90’s.
I remember now, and I knew I'd seen it when you mentioned it. I was in high school in 2001, so that's where I saw it. I was in Hot Topic.
Yes. I think Hot Topic carries our Dracola. At one point, they used to carry our vampire chocolate, too, come to think of it. Hot Topic has carried many of our products over the years and still does.
Visit vampire.com to see Vampire Vineyard’s current offerings and where to buy!
I'm really excited about everything that you've talked about and I really appreciate your time, thank you for sharing all of this with me and Vampyre Magaizine. Vampires don't die, not in the media, they just keep coming back around with new movies and tv shows. So, it's a good brand to be in.