Great Happening:

A spooky season for agri-tourism

Mark Mihalik with two of the dozens of Haunted Winery volunteers.

There’s no clowning around in this corn field at Regal Winery after dark. The zombies will chase you out, or in.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the old Cohotas Winery on County Line Road.

Known as Regal Vineyards today, back in the 1930s the winery produced sweet cherry and Concord wines for ceremonial and general consumption use. But according to the yarn spun by Mark Mihalik, who owns the 52-acre farm with his wife Debbie, the winery had a bad year in the 1930s. A drought hit the area and the vines refused to put forth the berry. The winemaker’s customers demanded wine, and the stress led to domestic violence that resulted in bloodshed. The winemaker tasted his wife’s blood and discovered he could make wine from it. His worries would be over, if only he could get a steady supply of human blood.

The gruesome tale is the premise behind the mad winemaker’s Haunted Winery, part of Regal Vineyard’s sprawling agri-tourism business on Ashtabula County’s far west side. In its sixth year, this tradition includes an eight-acre corn maze, pumpkin patch, hay wagon rides, Slide Mountain and many more attractions geared toward the family during the day. But when dusk closes the fun and games, fog rises from the basement of the winery and demented characters go to work making their virulent vintages.

A maze of pallets is an expanded attraction at the Haunted Corn Field.

 

The couple purchased the former vineyard and its amazing brick winery out of a desire to see it preserved as a working farm.

“We did not want to see it broken up,” Debbie says. “We loved the fact that this was a 53-acre farm that was close to everything.”

They began re-planting vineyards, this time with wine grapes, but lost the vines to the hard winters earlier in this decade. They replanted.

“We have a vineyard and we are growing grapes, but we are not making wine yet,” Debbie says. Working with a regional winery, they do produce two wines that tie into their Haunted Winery script, Blood Red and Fright White.

Some of the land was planted in grain crops, but Mark says it is very difficult to make money from a small farm these days. Seven years ago, they began exploring alternative uses and hit upon the idea of a corn maze coupled with a haunted house.

Mark, who owns Eagle Excavating, went into the project in a big way and it has grown from there. The Mihaliks contract with a Utah consulting firm, The Maze, to design and cut the maze’s pattern based upon the Mihaliks’ concept. For 2017 they chose the theme “This Land is Your Land” and created a salute to the U.S. Armed Forces and first responders.

“Mark’s (late) father was in World War II,” Debbie says. “He arrived at Pearl Harbor the day after the attacks.”

A second corn field, of about two acres, is used for the nighttime Zombie Tag game. The field is infested with zombies that would have contestants join their status. Players wear an electronic gizmo that blinks when a Zombie comes within arms’ length and infects them. The infection opens a 10-minute window during which time the infected player must locate, in the dark, one of the stations where the Zombie’s electronic poison can be neutralized. If the electronic tag turns red, the game is over for that player.

Haunted Winery has teamed with Grand River Cellars to produce a Dinner and Thrill package that includes dinner at Grand River and a night of thrills at the Haunted Winery. A Zombie Tag dinner package also is available. Reservations are required: 440-298-9838.

Zombie Tag survivors are entered into a drawing for an end-of-season dinner and  an investigation of the Haunted Winery building with a team from Lake Erie Paranormal. Six winners will be selected.

As with many of the attractions at the farm, the Haunted Corn Maze, Zombie Tag and Haunted House are produced with the help of volunteers.

“On any given night, we’ll have 30 to 40 volunteers here in addition to our three paid makeup artists and four paid managers,” Debbie says.

The mad winemaker’s son suspects something is not right in the wine cellar, but he won’t stop you from going down there. Fresh juice is always needed.

Individuals 16 and older can participate; younger volunteers need to be with their families.

“This is a fun thing for families to do,” Debbie says. “It becomes a family thing, and it’s really fun.”

The Mihaliks also are assisted by the children, Cosette and Mark Anthony. Cosette is in charge of concessions, while Mark Anthony handles security and farm animals.

The season is short, just seven weekends (the Haunted House is on Friday and Saturday nights only). Both Debbie, who works for the Cuyahoga County Board of Disabilities, and Mark, who owns an excavating company, have to curtail their work schedules to accommodate all the details and hours of running the agri-tourism business.

Mark put his excavating knowledge to good use in building a new attraction, Slide Mountain, for this year. The mountain has a tunnel running through it plus various slide tubes that youngsters can explore during the day-side activities at the winery. Other daytime attractions include a pumpkin patch, gourd trellis, corn cannons (they shoot ears of corn at targets), jumping pillow, scavenger/trivia hunts, rock labyrinth, duck races, hay rides, kids play area, pumpkin bowling, grape post maze, fire ring, paintball target shooting, pumpkin painting, tic tack toe, straw bale and rope race maze, corn hole games, farm animal train and concessions.

“I am the daytime staff,” Debbie says. “I love the daytime stuff.”

Mark takes care of the dark side.

“My husband loves this stuff,” Debbie says. “He’s artistic, he’s very creative. He’s the one who started researching the corn maze to see if it would be feasible.”

Mark says that many hours of research and talking to other haunted house operators goes into the Haunted Winery so it will be both scary and safe. All fire codes are observed and safety provisions are built in throughout the attraction. For example, all doors must be padlocked in an open position in case there is a fire.

Because the wine production area was located in the cellar and the old winery’s huge oak barrels are still down there (one of them has vintage cherry vinegar in it), Mark needed to make the rooms part of the tour. But there was not enough clearance between floor and ceiling, so a channel had to be cut in the concrete and floor. Two crews of volunteers were raised and went to work at opposite ends of the project. Mark designed it as a race, but when the crews had almost connected, a disturbing burial was uncovered: human remains.

Haunted concession? Nope. It’s the kitchen in the wine cellar.

Mark says the bones were probably those of a family member who had died during the winter, when an outside burial was not possible. The deceased was buried, forgotten and the dirt floor eventually covered over with concrete. Ironically, work on a haunted house brought them to light.

While those bones were “misplaced” by previous occupants, Debbie says they’ve yet to lose a someone in the corn maze. There are numerous safety precautions in place, including signs that will direct a lost maze-user out of the challenge if they want to peek at the directions.

The couple contracted with The Maze to cut the pattern into the field when the corn was just a few inches tall. The cutting took the company’s employees only four hours or so. The patterns were cut by counting rows, which results in a crisp design that can be appreciated only from the air.

The corn maze is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays now through Oct. 29. Private parties and groups are accommodated on other days. The Haunted Winery is open Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 7 p.m. The last tour departs at 11 p.m.

For full information, pricing and times, visit the Regal Winery website.

About Carl (317 Articles)
Carl Feather is lodging tax administrator for Ashtabula County and the founder of The Wave newsletter. He is 25-year newspaper industry veteran and frequent contributor to West Virginia's Goldenseal Magazine. He enjoys photography and videography, which he shares at his blog, thefeathercottage.com, and his Feather Cottage You Tube channel.
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