Audrey and Bill Kopp have reinvented their liquor-focused column, “Top Shelf Views,” as “Everything in Moderation.” The monthly articles will now cover wine, mead, cider, spirits and other local craft beverages.
In the midst of a thriving brewing community, the River Arts District has something special and unique: an urban winery. Though one won’t find acres of vineyards within the city limits of Asheville, plēb urban winery is a thriving enterprise that creates and brings to market wines made with grapes grown right here in Western North Carolina. Carving out an identity and encouraging wine lovers to take a closer look at wines made locally, plēb’s fast-approaching one-year anniversary neatly coincides with North Carolina Wine Month, now in its third year.
According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the first commercial winery in the state was launched in 1835. Today, North Carolina has five officially designated AVAs (American Viticultural Areas); the westernmost one is known as Appalachian High Country. Nearly a dozen wineries currently operate in the region.
Still, when many people think of North Carolina wines, the first things that come to mind are sweet libations made from muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), especially the large variety known as scuppernong. Tasty as those wines might be, they’re not known for their subtlety or sophistication. And they’re only part of the story.
“There’s a lot of great dry wine in this state,” says Joe Brock, one half of the blogging duo known as NC Wine Guys. He points out that North Carolina vintners “make dry wines that compete — and win — on a national and international level.”
The NC Wine Guys will help plēb celebrate its birthday and kick off N.C. Wine Month with a live podcast from the winery on Saturday, Aug. 31. “We plan on talking about some of the things that set them apart from other wineries,” says Wine Guy Matt Kemberling.
One of plēb’s most distinctive qualities is its status as an urban winery. The term refers to facilities in which the wine is produced in a city — closer to the consumers — as opposed to among the vineyards. Urban wineries are a relatively new phenomenon, and while some source their grapes locally, others don’t.
“Some are sourcing grapes from California and Oregon vineyards,” says plēb co-owner and executive manager Lauren Turpin. “But their winery might be in New York or Maine or wherever.”
Asheville’s only urban winery gets its grapes from a variety of vineyards, all close to home. “We use local grapes,” Turpin says. “Were not importing.” That means plēb wines uniquely showcase the character — the terroir — of this region.
In its first year of operation, plēb brought in 28 tons of grapes and produced the equivalent of 1,600 cases. The winery uses the term “equivalent” because, unlike most wineries, plēb doesn’t focus on bottling. “This year we’re bringing in 30-plus tons,” Turpin says, “so we’ll have another 1,600- or 1,700-case production.” But it’s all in kegs or barrels. A sophisticated tap system keeps the wines temperature-controlled (and in some cases, pressurized) prior to serving to customers.
At plēb’s facility on Lyman Street, fresh grapes are crushed. Then they’re initially exposed to the wild yeasts that populate the local air. That Old World approach to production combines European methods with modern techniques.
But not too modern, Turpin emphasizes. “We don’t chaptalize,” she says. Chaptalization is the process of adding sugar to fermenting grapes with a goal of increasing the wine’s alcohol content. At plēb, head winemaker Chris Denesha takes an approach of “let’s just let the wine be what it’s going to be, using open-top barrel fermentation and native yeasts,” Turpin says.
She acknowledges that operating a winery in a town not widely known for wines does present challenges. “We still have that unknown factor about us,” Turpin says. “We still get people who walk in, don’t even look at a menu, and say, ‘I want a cab sauv.’”
Those people might think of plēb as “just” a wine bar, but it’s a production winery, specializing in specific types of (very limited-run) varieties. “People are used to breweries, and they’re used to wine bars,” Turpin says. “They’re not quite sure what to do here. So we’re trying to help along the way.”
The unassuming, laid-back and friendly nature of plēb is very much by design. And it’s connected to the winery’s name, which was inspired by the plebian community of ancient Rome. “They were the farmers, the growers, the winemakers, the army, the economic backbone of society,” she says. “But more to the point for us, they worshiped the Aventine Triad: the gods of agriculture, viticulture and fertility.”
Turpin says she and her colleagues at plēb — currently numbering five in all — want to see “more farmers growing grapes in Western North Carolina. And we want to see more people making wine using those grapes, helping elevate this region even more so than it has already become.”