grove winery gibsonville
photograph by Marissa Joy Kaplan

If the words “strawberry wine” make you think of the song “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” or the flavored Boone’s Farm of some misbegotten night of your youth, wipe that grin off your face and show some respect. The strawberry wine we’re referring to sports a batch of medals — a gold, two silvers, and a bronze — around its pretty, elongated neck.

Max Lloyd isn’t the sort to brag, so he lets the shelves in his wine-tasting room do the boasting. Dozens of bottles — merlots, chardonnays, and yes, strawberry — are draped with medals from competitions near and far. Some bottles are so laden with metal discs that they’ve been glued to the wall, so as not to topple to the floor.

When Lloyd planted his first vineyard on the banks of the Haw River in Guilford County, he’d been in the wine industry for nine years, the third generation of his family to make wine. Initially, Lloyd intended to produce only European-style dry wines. And that’s what he did, opening his tasting room in 2004.

But a few years ago, the people began to speak. Customers also wanted a sweeter wine. Lloyd remembered that his father, who’s 78 and still stops by Grove Winery almost daily, had made strawberry wine in the basement of the family’s Greensboro home. As any self-respecting teenager would do, Lloyd and his brother used to sneak a sip now and then.

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A pause, here, for a short refresher on the simple-sounding yet mind-blowing complexity of winemaking: sugar + water + yeast = wine. Yeast eats the sugar, and the output is carbon dioxide and alcohol. Fruits, such as plums, pears, blackberries, blueberries, and, of course, grapes and strawberries, are full of sugar.

“I can grow grapes till the cows come home, but I don’t know a thing about growing strawberries,” Lloyd admits.

That first year, 2005, he bought California strawberries in bulk from the big-box stores, like Sam’s Club and Walmart. The wine did well, but nothing like in 2007, when it was awarded the double gold medal and won the Best Sweet Wine at the North Carolina State Fair.

Take a sip of the chilled, pink wine, and your mouth pops with a pleasant tartness.

That same year, his strawberry wine was honored with a silver medal at the Mid-Atlantic Wine Competition.

Then Lloyd went local — meaning that 100 percent of the strawberries in his wine come from Faucette Farms in Browns Summit and Iseley Farms in Burlington. Both are you-pick operations, and in a unique partnership, the farmer and the vintner have created a mutual admiration society.

The collaboration makes sense: Most do-it-yourself pickers scatter throughout strawberry fields on the weekends, when they have a day or two to make their jams, shortcakes, and other fruit-filled goodies. Come Monday, though, strawberries are still ripening in the fields; by Friday, pickers will pass them over as too ripe. Enter the crews who fill huge plastic bags and crates with the berries, then stash them in freezers to await Lloyd and his team.

Two pounds of Chandler-variety strawberries, especially known for their sweetness, go into every bottle of Grove Winery’s strawberry wine.

Strawberry wine is made just like a normal blush wine, Lloyd says. A mixture of berries, spring water, sugar, and yeast — Lloyd’s is a hybrid of French and native varieties — is allowed to set for three days.

Then, after five days, you “rack off” the solids, or the strawberry pulp. At this point, the liquid is about “half wine,” or 5 percent alcohol; by the time fermentation is complete, the wine will contain 13 percent alcohol.

After nature has taken its course, take a sip of the chilled, pink wine, and your mouth pops with a pleasant tartness. Mildly sweet, crisp, and light, the wine isn’t sweet enough to be a dessert wine — and isn’t intended to be. The chef at Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill has paired the wine, instead of strawberries, with a greens-and-goat-cheese salad, a perfect couplet in liquid form.

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Ideally served around 40 to 42 degrees, the strawberry wine would also be terrific with a roast beef sandwich after a hot Saturday morning spent doing yard work. Delicate, dry, and refreshing, at $12 to $14 a bottle, the strawberry wine is one of Grove’s biggest sellers by volume: 300 cases a year.

The grape varietals sell fast as well. On a 44-acre farm, Grove Winery grows nine acres of grapes, and produces about 3,000 cases of wines annually. Once a month, food trucks visit the winery, and in fair weather, the terrace, with its tables and chairs, and a pavilion by a natural lake, fill with tasters and conviviality.

Grove Winery is located in the Haw River Valley Wine Region, one of three wine-producing areas in North Carolina recognized, like Napa Valley, by the federal government. Still, Lloyd is hard-pressed to tell you precisely where the winery is. “We have an Elon phone number and a Gibsonville mailing address. We’re in the Greensboro zoning district, and the closest incorporated town is Altamahaw,” he laughs. But he knows exactly where the fruit for his prize-winning strawberry wine comes from: right down the road.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.