In the summer of 1996, as he was driving around Nashville, Vince Gill heard a new song on the radio. He didn’t know the artist, who was performing live at a local record store, but Gill “just was immediately captured,” he says. The twenty-one-time Grammy Award–winning musician changed course, rode over to the shop, and introduced himself to Deana Carter. “I got in the line and said, ‘Your voice sounds so cool. That song is so good. I just had to meet you,’” Gill recalls.
The song, of course, was “Strawberry Wine,” Carter’s chart-topping debut single about young love. This August, “Strawberry Wine” turns twenty-five—a full eight years older than the song’s protagonist was when she lost her virginity on her grandaddy’s farm. “It’s my life story,” says Carter, who’s back on tour and working with Universal to repackage the original Did I Shave My Legs for This? album. “It was such a swan dive in being willing to speak my truth.”
A quarter-century of radio airplay, heartfelt covers, and belted karaoke choruses have cemented Carter and her “Strawberry Wine” as essential country, iconic in the truest sense. “That’s a specific life experience, if you know that song,” says Elizabeth Cook, a singer-songwriter and host of Outlaw Country on Sirius XM. Breakout country star Mickey Guyton agrees: “When I think of the phrase strawberry wine, I immediately think of Deana Carter.” Even though Guyton was thirteen in 1996, and didn’t fully understand the lyrics, “it definitely made me feel something in my heart,” she says.
In “Rosé,” Guyton’s modern-day ladies’ drinking anthem, she insists on a “pretty in pink” glass of wine but reminds listeners: “There’s always a time for strawberry wine / But it ain’t that time right now,” a fan-girl homage to Carter. “I was trying to think of all the songs that people have sung about drinking, and I was like, ‘If we don’t put strawberry wine in this song, is it even a country song?’” she says.
Strawberry wine, however, isn’t the exclusive property of country music or Deana Carter, whose hit was preceded by four songs of the same name, most notably the Band’s 1970 ode to hard drinking. There have also been seven post-Carter songs titled “Strawberry Wine,” including one from Pat Benatar, released in 1997.
When it comes to lyrics, the strawberry wine catalog is much broader. The phrase likely entered the pop music lexicon in 1960 with “lips like strawberry wine” in Johnny Burnett’s “You’re 16.” Since then, more than a hundred songs have referenced strawberry wine. Not all songs in the playlist transcend: Macho behavior and sexist tropes abound, and plenty of artists pile strawberry wine onto a pyre of Southern clichés. (One such track has strawberry wine keeping company with plows, horses, cowboy hats, trucks, CMT, and fishing holes.)
But there are stand-outs, too. Strawberry wine appeared in Townes Van Zandt’s devastating “Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls,” the story of a young lover’s suicide. Charley Pride’s “Pirogue Joe” drinks strawberry wine alongside po’boys, as do fans waiting for a Paul McCartney concert in his “Venus and Mars/Rock Show.” B.B. King tells his lover that he’ll make her “sparkle like strawberry wine” in “The Beginning of the End.” David Allen Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” covered by George Jones and most recently Chris Stapleton, uses strawberry wine to paint the portrait of a woman who saves him from drinking.
Gill has a strawberry wine song of his own. In “Out of My Mind,” he pines for a lady with “legs just like a longneck bottle / And lips just like strawberry wine,” and he thinks the beverage’s recurring role in songwriting comes down to metaphor, rhyme, and euphony. “I just think there’s certain phrases that sound cool to sing. And that’s what I often find when I’m writing songs. When you got a line versus a line or phrase against a phrase, the only question you really ever ask yourself is which one sings better?” Gill says.
Gill also admits he’s never drunk the stuff (as a kid, he did once buy a bottle of Boone’s Farm but never summoned the courage to open it, lest he catch the wrath of his teetotalling father). Carter isn’t a fan of unbearably sweet strawberry wine either; like Guyton, she’s on team rosé. In high school, Cook drank Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill on Saturday nights before singing in a “rocking” Pentecostal gospel choir on Sunday mornings. “And boy I dragged in there,” she says. “It had me coming out of my skin.” And the verdict from Matraca Berg, who wrote the “Strawberry Wine” with Gary Harrison: “Strawberry wine is terrible.”
What strawberry wine lacks in palatability, though, the potable apparently makes up for in emotional potency. All it takes is one auditory sip to conjure some combination of sweetness, young love, femininity, innocence, sex, the rural South, and American identity. Berg and Harrison took the strawberry wine metaphor and built on it layer by layer, writing a song with its own suitcase full of symbolism.
“Strawberry Wine” is entirely autobiographical for Berg, who spent summers on her grandfather’s Wisconsin dairy farm, where she met her first big love. “Strawberry wine is your first taste of some kind,” she says. “You’re in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, putting your toe in the water. Strawberry wine was my toe in the water for alcohol. He was my toe in the water for other things.”
Almost universally, “Strawberry Wine” connects women to that experience—with no male gaze or influence to distort the memory. “It’s a place that we’ve all stood, especially as women, and women in love, and women in love and having been left,” Carter says. “The strength of the female voice to be able to say what’s being said, and it’s coming from a strong place as opposed to having something taken from her. It’s a decision to be okay with it.”
Still, there’s something more, a richness to Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” that has given the song and phrase a superpower. According to the late, great Hank Williams, “[The country singer] sings more sincere than most entertainers.” For Berg and Cook, it’s the sincerity of Carter’s delivery that makes “Strawberry Wine” so resonant and timeless. “Deana was lightning in a bottle,” Berg says. “I just can’t picture a belter singing that song. It sounded more vulnerable when she sang it, which is the perfect read.”
At the time of its debut, the song also ran counter to country trends. Fresh out of college, Cook moved to Nashville in 1996, a fleeting era when women dominated the country airwaves. Power singers like Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Trisha Yearwood owned the town. “It was flashy. It was diva. And here comes out this sweet girl in bell bottom jeans, telling this antiquated, folksy tale about losing her virginity,” Cook says. “It was a shocking aesthetic change from what was going on.”
Cook credits Carter with giving her the courage to quit an accounting job and pursue music full-time; to her, “Strawberry Wine” is for the girls who aren’t conventional. “It’s not for the followers but maybe women that have led their own lives, even if tragic through some filters, but they’re still poignant and beautiful in a lot of ways,” she says. Last year, Cook released “Two Chords and a Lie,” a song about a damaged, heartbroken woman. In one verse, we can see her sitting at a bar: “She knows the words to ‘Strawberry Wine’ / It’s a friendly reminder of how love is blind / You might find her buried alive / With a hand reaching up at your local dive.”
“Two Chords and a Lie” is among twenty country songs that directly name-check Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” with an extra fifteen or so like “Rosé” that tip their hats more subtly. Cook’s song explores and deepens the strawberry wine metaphor. Most of the others are pure fun and nostalgia, à la Thomas Rhett’s “What’s Your Country Song” and Lauren Alaina’s “Ladies in the 90s.” There are also an unfortunate few that attempt to tell the “Strawberry Wine” narrative through the male perspective (just … no), along with songs, again sung by men, that try to exploit the song’s sexuality. “I don’t think that men look at love the same as women,” Carter says. “You know so many guys have told me that that’s their girl’s song, or that song has served them well, and I’m like no, no, no. That’s not what it’s for!”
Mostly, though, Carter’s in awe of the song’s staying power. She’s grateful. And when she sings it now, the monumental “first” she thinks of is making an album and the ways in which her life changed after the summer of 1996. “When I’m singing, I can go through my mind in that six minutes, and it takes me through the journey of the whole thing. It makes me go back to Alan Jackson and big stadium tours. It makes me have these memories that just are unbelievable,” Carter says. “I’m singing the song to this day. It never gets old.”
For some of the finest strawberry wine songs, try this playlist.
The Legacy of Strawberry Wine in American Music – Garden & Gun is written by Dacey Orr for gardenandgun.com