Cedar City • Doug McCombs knows what you want to ask him.
"Why did I open a winery in Utah?" he said with a smile.
As a human resources vice president at Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, McCombs certainly knew a few places with more drinkers. But with all the big players in Sin City, McCombs sought out a different home for the small operation he wanted to build. His attention landed in Utah.
"Southern Utah had an attraction for me because there are no wineries, but there are 5 million tourists that come through every year," he said. Despite Utah's dry-to-the-extreme image, he said regulations weren't to onerous.
"There are so few wineries that you can just apply for a license and get one," he said. Though the Iron Gate Winery did have to open a separate packaging facility to sell bottles a few hundred feet away because the Cedar City tasting room is less than 200 feet from the church.
McCombs said the people of Southern Utah have been happy to have the winery, which opened about one year ago behind the Iron Gate Bed and Breakfast, offering a tasting room and a patio.
"The community has been extremely welcoming," he said. Adds wife and co-owner Heather: "There's a real sense of ownership for local products."
Doug McCombs got interested in wine by frequenting Las Vegas restaurants and taking trips to Napa Valley. Before long he was learning how to make it and planting vines in the backyard.
"It was about 100 vines that's a lot in Vegas!" said Heather McCombs.
When he struck out on his own, McCombs had to get creative. He found that ordering grapes from high-quality growers was near-impossible with his small order sizes. So he started asking larger wineries to tack his orders onto theirs.
"When you're little, you have to partner with the big guys who have a little bit of muscle to get what you want," he said.
Iron Gate now offers 12 different wines, six reds and six whites. All are blends, mainly California and Washington varieties. Highlights at a recent tasting included the not-too-sweet 2012 Riesling, with notes of green apple, and the 2011 Tempest, a red blend.
After blending, McComb ages the wine in barrels of French and American oak for six months to a year.
He doesn't plan on growing grapes in Utah, though he's experimenting.
This time of year, his business is intertwined with the Utah Shakespeare Festival; his receipts tend to track ticket sales.
"People who want to have a glass of wine, a drink before bed, don't always want to go to a bar," he said.
Iron Gate is open about an hour after the shows close.
Still, "we have to work as hard as we can for every dollar," he said, cold-calling businesses and restaurants to get the product on the wine list.
"It's been a year where we learned a ton. Some lessons we didn't want to learn, but we learned them," Heather McCombs said. From June through December 2012, they sold about 500 cases. Their 2013 goal is a 1,200-case production.
"They don't have to like every product, nobody does," he said, "but if they say, 'You have a good quality product,' that's success for us."
The Iron Gate Winery
Where • 100 N 200 West, Cedar City; 435-867-9463
Open • Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. -8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m. through October. By appointment during winter.
Cost • $13.95-$27.95 per bottle
Tasting flights • Three (1-ounce) pours of either red or white wines $9.95; Five (2-ounce) pours with a cheese plate, $18.95. Prices may be deducted from the cost of purchases of three or more bottles.