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The return of a tasty island vintage

Winemaker Gerard Bentryn loads a bottling machine as helpers label and pack bottles full of strawberry wine for the first time in three years. - JIM BRYANT photo
Winemaker Gerard Bentryn loads a bottling machine as helpers label and pack bottles full of strawberry wine for the first time in three years.
— image credit: JIM BRYANT photo

Bainbridge Vineyards bottles its first strawberry wine in three years.

Karen Selvar’s fields are sprouting a cover crop of weeds as her once-sprawling strawberry plants retreat for the winter.

But her summer harvest continues to blaze red in bottles trundling off an old conveyor belt under winemaker Gerard Bentryn’s watchful eye.

“This is the first time in three years we’ve had our strawberry wine,” the owner of Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery said Thursday, as he wiped a drop of glue from a freshly-labeled bottle.

“There was a bad crop on the island for two years, and then the city wouldn’t let us make wine here for a year,” Bentryn said. “We could have bought (fruit) off-island, but I’m stubborn. If it says ‘Bainbridge’ on the label then it ought to have Bainbridge in the bottle.”

For the island’s last commercial strawberry grower, the 400 cases of wine mean an expanded market for her crop.

“It’s like a second harvest,” Selvar said. “And economically, it’s really good. Gerard pays a good rate and I’m glad I had all the extra berries. I know there’s a lot of people that like this strawberry wine.”

The wine was so popular that in years past, customers would flock to the winery as soon as the bottles were corked.

“It was enormous,” Bentryn said. “We had lines to the highway and sometimes we’d sell out in a week.”

But the dozen friends and volunteers who turned out to help cap, cork, label and box the wine are also guaranteed a few bottles.

“It’s so good,” said Jenny Greiter, who has helped at the winery since 1988. “It’s like strawberry juice with a kick.”

Bentryn is proud of what goes into each bottle.

“It’s a pound and a quarter of whole, fresh strawberries picked once a year, right here,” he said.

His wife and winery co-owner, JoAnn Bentryn, is also proud of what doesn’t go into each bottle.

“There’s no water added, no apple juice, no grape juice, no flavorings to beef it up,” she said. “When you taste it, it’s like liquid strawberry. Like a fresh strawberry, it’s not that sweet. It has a little tart. It’s refreshing and has some bite.”

Carl Marino, a recent transplant from Arizona, hasn’t tried the wine yet; he’s here more for a day’s worth of honest work. Recently retired from a technical support position at the Glendale school district, Marino “came out from behind a computer” and moved to Bainbridge to put in many long days picking and pressing the winery’s grapes.

“One word: genuine,” Marino said as he loaded an empty bottle onto a rumbling conveyor belt. “Some make wine by chemistry. Here, it’s what the weather and the soil give them.”

While the elements are sometimes unpredictable, so is the winery’s bottling machine.

Two bottles Marino had just loaded wedged themselves under the machine’s filling spouts.

Gerard Bentryn hit a switch and the old stainless steel rig stopped growling.

“We call him ‘Tony Canelli’,” said island farmer and volunteer bottler Betsey Wittick, as she points to the Italian-made machine’s tarnished ‘Canelli’ brand label. “Usually we get along better with him.”

With duct-tape and napkins padding bottles on the increasingly rough-running machine, Wittick says its more than cantankerousness that’s slowing the bottling process.

“It’s punishing us because it knows what Gerard is going to do,” she said, eyeing the warehouse door. Outside sits a new bottling machine shining under a plastic tarp.

“Tony’s being like ‘Hal,’” the evil computer from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Wittick said. “’Gerard...what are you doing?’” she said, imitating Hal’s eerie computer voice. “It knows Gerard is getting rid of it.”

But a new machine means Bentryn has renewed hope for a steady flow of strawberry wine for years to come.

For Selvar, the stacks represent a measure of support for an island tradition.

“Sometimes I feel like the lone duck,” she said. “There used to be strawberry farms all over. After the (Japanese-American) internment, a lot of growers lost their farms. Some continued until the ’80s, like the Filipinos, growing old varieties like the Rainiers and the Hoods.

“I know its a challenge. But I’ll stick with it because it’s what I do.”

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