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WNC Business

Redefining the reputation of Western North Carolina wine

May 15, 2024 10:05AM ● By Randee Brown

Pushing for a sense of local originality, Chris Denesha and Lauren Turpin co-founded Plēb Urban Winery in 2017. The partners have seen a lust for mimicry in many of Western North Carolina’s wineries, as many boast how much the region has in common with the wine-making regions of California, France, and Italy, despite heavily-manipulated vineyards and importing large amounts of grapes to supplement their own crops.

According to Denesha, Asheville is a place he felt he could bring a unique product that would be celebrated for its realness, though he had to “jump over hurdles” to get people to even try his wine. Much of his early feedback included people saying they didn’t like NC wine because it was either super-sweet muscadine wine, or varieties like cabernets that were too bitter because they are grown in a completely different environment than what they’re meant for.

“The authenticity has been challenging,” Denesha said. “People didn’t completely understand North Carolina wine and what it represents, even in Asheville. There has been a reputation earned by poor winemaking or poor practices, and we are trying to break those down.”

North Carolina held the largest winery in the country prior to prohibition, according to Turpin, and maintains the oldest vine in the country. When prohibition ended, some states began planting grapes right away, but for NC, much of the resurgence of the winemaking industry has occurred in the last 20 years, and in WNC, that timeline is even more recent.

Being located “on the frontier of the frontier” as far as NC winemaking goes, Denesha and Turpin are on a mission to discover the true spirit of this area’s wines. They are working through a discovery phase and maintaining the importance of keeping true regional flavors as the focal point of their wine, and also looking at climate and weather-pattern changes to determine what varieties grow well here now, and what varieties will continue sustainable growth into the future. 

Grape varieties currently grown on their Madison County vineyard include catawba, traminette, seyval blanc, and labrusca, although in some years, the grapes do not lend themselves to producing any red wine at all. Focused on producing whites, rosés, and sparkling wines, Denesha said the doors may open as the climate shifts.

“With vineyards and winemaking, you have to be thinking in decades,” Denesha said. “A winery owner will be five years into a new business before the first harvest, then after aging for two years, you’re seven years in before you know if your wine is any good. You only get one shot each year, and your business is subject to the elements and weather, so many owners may be resistant to ripping out vines and starting something new because the idea of trying again is hard. Other regions have already gone through that, and there’s no way of expediting that process to do one small test batch. You have to have patience.”

Being the owner, winemaker, and grower is unique in the industry, and Turpin said this combination allows them to have control over the entire process from beginning to end. Allowing their business to be in a discovery phase, they are not yet adding new oak, tannins, acid, yeast, or sugar in order to get a sense of what the local grapes truly taste like. Not only is this cost-efficient, it gives the grapes a chance to first show what true flavors are going out naturally, which is more sustainable for production as the business moves forward.

The growing portion of the business also strives to support sustainability as well. Not forcing something to grow here that doesn’t belong reduces the need for sprays, fertilizers, and further manipulation. Easier growing methods also mean more ability to pay their farmers enough to continue using these responsible practices.

“It’s about the ethos of planting what grows well naturally,” Turpin said. “We want to be responsible partners, and we want our consumers to go along with us on that. It’s not just about us; it’s about our region’s journey into winemaking. That’s why our name comes from the Roman word 'plebeians,’ or commoners. We are the commoners with wine. Hopefully with an honest and transparent role, we will help set that as a new standard for Western North Carolina’s wine.”