We’ve seen what a craft beer scene can do for a city, and at its heart is a tourism rooted in what you cannot get anywhere else. After decades of finding reliable chains for everything from hotels to restaurants, many tourists are now craving the hyper-local, the well-thought-out, and the totally unique. For craft breweries, making their own product on-site gives them this assurance, but it turns out, you can do something similar for wine.
The owner and team of plēb urban winery have set out on a frankly audacious mission: in an area that doesn’t have hundreds of years of winemaking history, they are working with all the growers available to make what they call sustainable, “minimal intervention” wine.
One of the tough but somewhat open secrets of the modern wine world is that your bottle may contain many things that aren’t just grapes and grape juice: from gelatin to clarify the wine to sugar to increase either alcohol or add sweetness, there are dozens of legal additives in wines, and most wines don’t include an ingredient list.
The additives help major wine companies to produce consistent wines that people frankly love to drink, but the more these wines have been put under the microscope, the more people are turning to the natural wine movement.
While there isn’t a single certification for natural wine, it involves aiming toward certain ideals: more organically grown grapes and grapes that use as few pesticides and herbicides as possible, fewer additives in the fermentation process, relying more on using mixtures of different grapes and grape juices to achieve the final flavors rather than non-grape additions.
And biodynamic practices are important too. plēb works to promote farming practices that aren’t as hard on the soil and nearby ecosystems, and they prefer to serve wine on tap to save the waste of adding bottles to the process. You get really fresh-tasting wine too! Their website cites that more than 8,000 bottles were saved just by serving wine on tap in 2021, and you have to imagine the number has grown a lot.
When we wandered in on a Friday afternoon, it was a quiet time for plēb, but they already had chairs and a stage set up for an upcoming “Wine With Divine” cabaret show that was upcoming. The big garage doors were rolled up, and the lovely late-summer sunshine and air were rolling through the warehouse-style space.
I ordered the white wine flight and my companion ordered the “experimental” flight, some of the most intriguing wines on the menu put together in a flight for wine adventurers. We agreed to try all of them together.
First, my companion commented on the plēb red wine called Noble Carlos. It was a light and clear red that made him think of cranberries, and the bartender pointed out that the flavor profile would be similar: they took muscadine grapes, a native variety in NC, and made wine that was considered “bone dry,” basically no residual sugar left after fermentation.
She told us about how the popularity of a highly sweet muscadine wine wasn’t just that the grapes had to be this sweet. There is often white table sugar literally added to the process to keep the wine that sweet. I had sampled some of these super sweet varieties before and had avoided muscadine wine as a result since – sweet (and sweetened!) wine just isn’t my style.
But we each tried the Noble Carlos, and the cranberry pucker and signature muscadine fullness were there, just without the cloying sweetness. It was not just drinkable but delicious.
That first taste was an auspicious sign – while I’d been hesitant about experimental wines, assuming that my not-trained palate would just interpret them as “not good,” this wine pointed to the idea that wines can be out of the ordinary while still tasting absolutely amazing.
We sampled the sparkling wine on my flight next (the Appalachian Classic Sparkling), knowing bubbles aren’t forever. Now, I’m a fan of sparkling wines in general, but this one was admittedly my favorite of the whole batch. The effervescence came with a strong citrus note at the beginning, and I agreed with the tasting notes that claimed it ended with a “creamy finish.”
Yes, I don’t know what magic makes wine able to taste like cream, but this wine really sips like a bit of a creamsicle. Mmm. My companion didn’t read the tasting notes first, and his verdict was that it tasted like “butter,” but he liked it too.
The True Player wine gave us pause – its origins seemed unusual, with hickory shagbark added and the wine aged in a concrete egg for six months, and I assumed it’d be a strange and mineral-y brew. My companion sniffed it and declared it smelled like a Buttered Popcorn Dum Dum lollipop, and it was definitely fragrant.
The flavor on the mouth, though, was good – complex without a strong floral or fruity note. It was another one of those wines that I’d have assumed would be too different for me, but was instead a pleasant sipper.
The Foundy White on my flight was a tasty, juicy white wine that had all the depth and refreshing aspects of biting into a pear, but again, quite dry and not at all cloying. I really liked the last white wine as well, A Kind Reminder, though I was bummed not to be able to taste one of the tasting notes, pie crust, with my admittedly-not-trained palate. The main notes for that one were vanilla, peach, and merengue, though, and those were lovely.
Our final wine was the only orange wine on the menu, called b-sides and rarities volume 5. My companion thought the aroma was like a “perfume,” with the stone fruit notes of apricot and plum making for a round, lovely wine.
The orange color comes from a process that lets the grape skins and seeds contact the pressed grape juice to leave more of the hue than a white wine while retaining much of the process and flavor profile of a white wine. The six tiny wine glasses showcased the many colors a wine can be in the late afternoon light.
There were at least another 10 or 12 wines available beyond our flight, so we could have easily kept ordering little sips and trying them, and I think the menu shows some iteration as well. Many of the wines are called “volume 2” or “2.0” or something else that indicates that they’ve tried this kind of combo before but are doing a new spin on the same idea.
I love the idea that a winery and its wines are so new that they are trying out the recipes on their guests, like a friend who makes their own wine and has you come over to compare vintages and discuss what should become the new standby recipe.
While I enjoyed spending an easygoing afternoon with a friend here, the nice thing about the plēb space is that I can see why people use it for events. I’ve personally been to a couple of book club meetups here, where we were able to grab a big high-top table and hash out our thoughts on a good book without contributing any more noise to the space than anyone else; the spaciousness simply makes it possible to hear each other (at least midweek) while also enjoying a bit of hubbub as others enjoy themselves too.
I see why they do comedy nights, trivia, and other events, as well as charity events and musical acts. Especially on a nice day with all the garage windows open to keep the space well-ventilated, it doesn’t feel like an overly busy space.
I’ll also admit to having rarely stopped by plēb without also stepping out onto the River Arts District Greenway, the lovely paved path along the French Broad River that is literally steps from the entrance. The location of plēb makes it both easy to get to and a little bit past the furor of downtown, which is nice for logistics like parking and traffic.
If you are downtown, though, they are the same winemakers behind the aventine wine bar in downtown, so you can still sample some good vintages if you’re keeping to the busy downtown streets.
plēb has a lot of the same touches that are popular in so many of the breweries and eateries in town: rustic wood on the walls, a well-loved shelf of board games for playing while you sip, four little “living room” setups that let a group feel like they are settling in for an evening chat at home, except they have kegs of wine nearby, floaty Edison lights adding a glow to things.
But what really makes it impressive is that it has another common-in-Asheville, uncommon-in-general feature: a commitment to craft. You can tell that plēb’s team wants to sell truly fascinating wine with an interesting background as this winemaking region is so new and uncharted, and with a strong commitment to sustainability so that they can feel good about making this wine for decades to come.
I absolutely raise a glass to that.
plēb urban winery: 289 Lyman St, Asheville