Nestled up next to Riverview Station and within walking distance to Foundation Skatepark, 12 Bones BBQ, Wedge Brewing and a treasure trove of potters and woodworkers, you’ll now find an urban winery tucked within the former Paneling World building. Tagged with fresh artwork from several of the same notable local artists you’ll find spread throughout the Foundation Spot, including Muralist Ian Wilkinson and Graffiti Artist Gus Cutty, the 10,000 square foot space blends right into its new home in the River Arts District. Plēb Urban Winery opened its doors to the community in September, 2018. Notice that little line or macron, over the ē. When pronouncing, that gives you a long latin vowel, producing an eeee, so the name has less of an eh and more of an eeeee like you’re squealing with excitement. Let’s say it together for good measure, Plēbian. Or as Executive Manager Lauren Turpin’s shirt reads on the day of their grand opening ‘Bitch Plēb.
So what’s this plēb stand for? If you’ve got a little ancient Roman history tucked away, you’ll remember that the plebeians were the working class heroes of their time– the bakers and growers, the builders and craftsmen. They were the folks growing and making the wine for the privileged patrician class to enjoy. The four person team at plēb wants to honor this very same class of folks in our local and regional space by supporting small growers of native, niche grape varieties and experimenting with small batch wine production that doesn’t adhere to big wine blends while educating locals “and not taking themselves too seriously” adds Lauren, who runs the space alongside her husband Lee Turpin.
The remaining plēbians in this quartet are Head Vintner Chris Denesha, and Assistant Winemaker and Sommelier Tyler Kay, both 29 and longtime friends, having grown up together in the central valley of California. Although they were around the farming aspect of wine when they were small, they didn’t become as interested in the process until their time at Sonoma State College when they both began working at wineries. Denesha went on to travel and work on organic wine farms via WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), an online network that connects volunteers to opportunities to live and work on organic farms. Kay continued on working in wine shops in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, earning his sommelier certification, figure out his style and how he wanted to approach winemaking. It wasn’t long after moving to Asheville that Denesha met Turpin through a mutual connection and shared his idea for an Asheville winery. Having spent some time working in breweries herself, and with a similar vision, she was on board to help bring that vision to life.
So what made two friends from wine country decide to open a winery in the mountains of North Carolina, I asked him? “Well I was working in a winery in Boone with the growers and just saw an opportunity that I felt no one else saw– to grow certain types of grapes, if you just embrace what grows well and don’t force an idea of what you like to drink based on what you know,” shares Denesha.
According to Denesha, many farmers have trouble selling obscure grape varieties that grow well here to the local and regional wineries because they don’t fit the flavor profiles of the big wines that most know and are looking for, like cabernet sauvignon or merlot. If the wineries can’t sell it, they can’t purchase the lesser known grapes from these small scale growers, so they’re left no other option but to grow the varieties that suit the flavor profiles of the more well known wines. Without the support to grow those lesser known grape varieties, they’re simply phased out of local growers repertoire, leaving little room for experimentation and little opportunity to support small scale farmers attempting to grow native grapes. And understanding what those grape varietals are, treating them with the same respect as the grapes that fit the flavor profiles of well known wines, and supporting the farmers growing them is exactly the impetus for the creation of plēb. In fact, the team was able to source 100% of their grapes from North Carolina-based farms, one of which is their own 5-acre Boone vineyard.
I walk into their graffiti’d production space and all three begin to laugh at a mural painted by Wilkinson of Kay scared with an open mouth screaming, apparently based off a photograph taken after he’d left a haunted house near Niagara Falls. Apparently they jotted down a collective list of characters and idea for local artists, Cutty, Wilkinson and Melt, and the result is a total range of hilarious old photo recreations to favorite movie characters like Ralph from A Christmas Story to The Professor and The Blob. Even the light fixtures and fork lift are tagged.
Denesha walks over to open the lid of a large white box and inside lie hundreds of grapes. He picks up a cluster from their recent harvest in the high country, where both he and Kay manage two wineries, one in Boone and one in Deep Gap.
“It just seemed like the whole industry is being boxed out,” he shares. “That style of wine production mis-represents what is doing well and so we’re losing growers that were growing the right things for this area, yet they can’t make any money growing these grapes because they’re undesirable. No one has heard of them and no one is asking for them.”
They hope to change that by providing a space to create experimental local wines based on native grape production that supports small scale grape growers. They chose Asheville, and more specifically the River Arts District, because they knew if anyone would be into supporting the process of finding the grapes that grow well here, experimenting with local grape varieties and paying for a glass that supports those small scale growers, it would be the same people who mark their calendars for weekly farmers markets and go out of their way to buy $5 pints of locally IPAs utilizing local hops, barleys and fruits.
“Education is an important value to us,” shares Tyler. “We’re hoping to do harvest events where people can actually come harvest grapes at the farms and vineyards and then be able to see it through production to the final product.”
For now, you can kick back and enjoy a glass of wine from small-scale North Carolina growers and attempt to find the 22 blackbirds Artist Ian Wilkinson painted into little nooks and crannies within the space.
“I suggest trying to find them while you drink your first glass of wine and not your third,” says Turpin. Learn more about plēb urban winery at https://www.pleburbanwinery.com/ They’re located at 289 Lyman St, Asheville, NC 28801. Pick up a copy of Food Life Magazine to read the full story in print, peruse a ‘Local Libations; guide from Metro Wines, snag a recipe for Cabernet Braised Short Ribs with Roasted Root Vegetables from Chef Philip Bollhoeffer and more.