For the love of vineyards and wine

by | Aug 28, 2020

Every Friday on social media, we post a Farm Feature Friday showcasing one of our dedicated North Carolina farmers. Debbie Stikeleather, of Iron Gate Vineyards & Winery, is one of those farmers. The #FarmFeatureFriday campaign will run through December 2021 on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Be sure to tune in each Friday afternoon on social and help show your support for our local farmers!

Love at first sight doesn’t just apply to romantic couples. Debbie Stikeleather, owner and winemaker at Iron Gate Vineyards & Winery in Mebane, fell in love with the farmland the minute she saw it. “I would drive by and admire the farm every morning on my way to work and there was just something that drew me to the land,” Debbie said, “I still remember seeing Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, the farms previous owners, sitting out in the yard under huge oak trees in the summertime.” Although the farm was abandoned for nearly 10 years, Debbie started restorations in 1998 and her husband, Gene, finally bought all 60 acres of the farm in 2000, only two years before they were married.

Debbie did not grow up directly on a farm but spent many childhood summers helping on her grandparents farm in Caswell County and neighborhood tobacco farms. When her and Gene first bought the farmland, she originally used those skills of growing tobacco until she took classes about wine-making at Surry Community College that piqued her interest and led to the conception of the vineyard. “I was on the internet one day and ran across a new program for tobacco growers at the community college about how tobacco farmers could grow grapes as a new crop,” Debbie said, “and I was immediately intrigued.” Debbie was mentored by Linda King, the first female winemaker in North Carolina at RagApple Lassie Vineyard,and learned a lot from her through the years. “The way in which this new industry came to be, by working together to help each other, was very inspiring,” she said, “I was very fortunate, along with other future winemakers, to be trained by Linda.”

Today, Iron Gate Winery is the only winery in Alamance County. Chambourcin and Niagara are the most popular grape varieties grown at the vineyard, but Merlot, Savignon Blanc, Cabernet Savignon, Traminette, Sangiovese and Seyval Blanc have been grown in previous years.

A typical day on the farm starts at 8 a.m. and can last 10 to 12 hours depending on the season. “I wear many hats as farm owner and winemaker,” Debbie said, “I am responsible for everything from taking care of the vines, mowing the vineyard and spraying the fungicides to making and bottling the wines and helping customers in the tasting room.”

Although Debbie has fought her fair share of battles with spring frosts, pests, diseases and weeds, she comes back stronger each year because she truly loves it. “Seeing the fruits of your labor and watching folks enjoy your product is not only incredibly rewarding but drives the passion that keeps you going,” she said, “it’s the people I have met and friends I have made in this industry that have been the highlight of my career in the wine business.”

In addition to on site at the winery, Iron Gate wines can be found in a variety of retail stores across the state, including Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Lowes Foods, The Fresh Market, Total Wine and Whole Foods Market. Debbie’s friend Chef Lucindy Willis, previous owner of the Yancey House in Caswell County and past winner of the N.C. Best Dish contest, incorporates Iron Gate wine into delicious, local recipes during year-round events held at the winery. “We have had a great run working with her,” Debbie said, “she is a good friend and a great supporter of buying and cooking with local produce.” Debbie and Chef Willis continue working together to this day on a variety of events held at the winery, such as cooking classes and dinners on the farm.

Even though Debbie is partial to all the wines she has created, her favorite is Flue Fire. “It really comes from my roots in Caswell County,” she explains, “and is a sweet white blend of Niagara and Carlos.” Historically, flue cured tobacco was discovered in Caswell county, thus inspiring the name of Flue Fire wine.

Iron Gate Winery was voted best winery by the Times-News Readers Choice Awards in 2019 and Debbie hopes to continue providing that high-quality wine for years to come. “As the years go by and I start to enter my retirement years, I hope to find a young couple with the same dreams and desires that I had 20 years ago,” she said, “I hope they have a vision for the land that can keep it going for years to come.”