The siren song of entrepreneurship lures men down strange, spooky paths -- none weirder than the one Michael Machat followed into the heart of vampire country. This clean-cut lawyer is in the unlikely business of providing the spiritual descendants of Vlad Dracul with the gory libation they crave. More convenient than freshly punctured prey, Machat's products also boast a fruity bouquet and a sharp, peppery finish.
Vampire Wine was conceived at the tail end of the '80s, when it dawned on Machat that an awful lot of people were reading Anne Rice's vampire novels. Not a Rice fan himself, he nonetheless saw a hot marketing opportunity: Why not give would-be creatures of the night a taste of Transylvania? Blood-red wine from Count Dracula's traditional homeland might not be quite as authentic as the fruit of the vein, but it would be a heck of a lot easier to import.
"I couldn't believe someone hadn't already done it," Machat says. "Of course, at the time I came up with the idea I didn't know where Transylvania was or whether they made wine there."
He soon discovered that the fabled region lay in the heart of then-communist Romania. The 1990 execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made it possible for Machat, who was living in England at the time, to plan an exploratory trip to the tiny country. But the journey proved more spine-chilling than his wildest nightmares.
"It was a pretty scary experience," Machat says now. "Bucharest was dark -- they didn't have electricity at night. I don't know if they were trying to save power or something. And if you had a rental car you had to wait in line for hours at the gas station. I mean literally two or three hours. It was almost easier to just turn in your car and rent a new one. But the Hertz place was only open on like Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I don't know what would have happened if you had to turn in a car any other day." Scary, indeed.
Things got even eerier as Machat and his Romanian contact, a businessman working at the local branch of the Pepsi corporation, ventured northward into the ancient province of Transylvania. Nestled in the juncture of the Carpathian mountain range and the Transylvanian Alps, this remote, treacherous region lies near the plains of Moldavia and Walachia. The Transylvanian plateau features excellent soil and a long history of viniculture. It also contains terrors Machat and his companion hadn't anticipated.
"It was really dark. They didn't have streetlights; instead, they just painted the tree trunks white," Machat recalls with a shudder. "And seeing guys at the airport with machine guns -- but that was in the city. Um... seeing wolves, hearing wolves was creepy. But I wasn't really afraid of being bitten by a vampire." Positively terrifying.
Machat visited several vineyards in the area and soon became a purveyor of Vampire Wine. It's not the product of a single vineyard -- each year Machat chooses a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot Grigio and several other varieties from an assortment of wineries in the general area. The different vintages are united by their place of origin and their evocative labels, which feature 15th-century depictions of Hell and the coat of arms of Vlad the Impaler, the local inspiration for the vampire myth.
"I got [the coat of arms] from the Count Dracula society in London," Machat says. "They had all sorts of research. Since I've been doing this, I've run across all kinds of vampire groups."
If Machat's been marked by his macabre journeys, it doesn't show. He sells posters, caps and T-shirts on his Web site and remains skeptical about the existence of the dark side. For now.
Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly for Salon and the Chicago Tribune.