Can-do attitude leads alumnus to turn farm into winery
Ask Gene Stikeleather what he does for a living and he’ll give you a simple answer. “I’ll do anything I can do for a dollar,” he says, laughing.
Stikeleather, a 1965 CALS graduate, started building fences in the 1970s after a stint working in corporate America. One client needed a fence to go around a barn. That led to a successful fencing business, Iron Gate Custom Services, and the rest was history.
“And I haven’t had a day off since 1977,” Stikeleather says.
But that history took a different course in the early 2000s. Stikeleather’s wife, Debbie, was interested in studying viticulture, the science of grape cultivation used in producing wine. At the time, Surry Community College was beginning such a program, and she graduated in 2003. The couple visited other wineries and helped some friends with their harvest.
Then they started planting grapes on the farm they lived on in Mebane, N.C., and opened it as a winery in 2004. And nine years later, the Winery at Iron Gate Farm is a thriving Piedmont winery.
“We didn’t plan to have a winery,” Stikeleather says. “We first planned to just plant grapes on the farm. It didn’t take us long to figure out it was a lot more work.”
The winery felt some growing pains, with the start-up costs equaling $15,000 to plant just one acre of grapes. Add to that the toll that nature can take on the vineyard with frost, droughts and birds swooping down from overhead to eat grapes, and it’s taken a great deal of work for Iron Gate to thrive.
Stikeleather credits NC State for some of that work. Researchers from the university came to help them study the impact insects could have on the vineyard and what sort of crops the soils there were conducive to growing.
The process forced Stikeleather, who studied agricultural engineering at NC State, to catch up with his wife’s training. “All of mine was osmosis,” he says. “But I grew up on a farm [in Stony Point, N.C.]. So planting was nothing new to me. I was told you put something in the ground and it would grow.”
Today, the Winery at Iron Gate offers wine tastings, movie nights and music events. They harvest eight acres and offer 10 different wines. And it stands as one more task that Stikeleather can do, despite never having an interest in wine before Iron Gate came along.
“I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘merlot,’” he says. “I might have had a glass of wine, but if I did I don’t remember when. It’s not like I didn’t like it. I just never had enough sense to order it off the menu.”
The Winery at Iron Gate Farm is one of dozens of vendors - including restaurants, farms, breweries, wineries and bakeries - participating in the Red & White Food and Beverage Festival during the week of homecoming. All of the vendors have NC State connections, with alumni as owners or managers. The festival is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, at The State Club in the Park Alumni Center. Visit the festival website to register and see a full list of vendors participating.