We’ve partnered with Bacardi Women in Leadership for a series dedicated to exploring the theme of “originality” with some of today’s most inspiring leaders.
In the often-genteel wine world, you know you’re dealing with a different point of view when the tagline is: “Just Fucking Fermented Juice.”
It’s an appropriate jolt from biodynamic winemaker Krista Scruggs, who has a history of defying expectations: She’s a young woman, African-American and a California native, who has chosen to make wine in Vermont. And not just any wine, but wine made from biodynamically farmed grapes, sometimes cofermented with foraged apples to create a singular hybrid style. After founding her own label, Zafa Wines, one of her first bottlings, a provocatively named sparkler called Jungle Fever, sold out quickly in its 2017 debut. She was quickly marked as a wine wunderkind.
Yet Scruggs bristles at the idea that her success was overnight. It’s been a long road, she counters.
After a knee injury shattered her original dream — to be the first woman to play basketball in the NBA — Scruggs stepped into the wine world at Constellation Brands. She soon realized something was still missing: a connection to farming. “I said to myself, if I pursue this route, I’ll become a winemaker behind a desk,” she says.
What followed left the desk far behind: Scruggs traveled around the world, pruning vines in Washington state, working with small producers in Italy and at Domaine de L’Antenet, the first certified organic vineyard in Cahors, France. And eventually she landed in Vermont, working alongside La Garagista’s groundbreaking winemaker Dierdre Heekin, whom Scruggs describes as her mentor. Meanwhile, Scruggs had a job offer on the table to be assistant winemaker/grower at Robert Clay Vineyards, a grape grower in the Hill Country wine region of Texas.
Unusually, she negotiated a way to work at both. Today, she explains, “I treat Texas as my southern hemisphere and Vermont as my northern hemisphere…”
While working with Heekin, Scruggs also founded Zafa Wines and released her first vintages in 2017; bottlings included Against All Odds, No Love Lost and Jungle Fever, a blend of grapes from one of La Garagista’s vineyards and foraged wild apples. The only sparkling wine from that vintage, Jungle Fever quickly found favor and garnered what she recollects as “a firestorm of press.” This year, she’s pouring her second vintage, and 2019 will mark her third harvests in both Vermont and Texas.
Often, success “might not look like what you think it might look like,” she says. Looking back at her girlhood NBA dreams, Scruggs never would have anticipated ending up with her own wine label. But, she acknowledges, “My dream is still coming true, just in a different way.”
What was the biggest success or a pivotal moment in your journey?
I think it was the moment when I decided to take charge of my narrative. And what I learned from that is it was a reminder that only I can tell my story. If someone else is dictating my narrative, that means it can be taken away from the original goal I have set.
Particularly within the last year or so, with having so much press…it allowed people to make assumptions. When people see you in the press, they think all of a sudden you just started then and there’s an erasure of all the work it took to get to that point. I saw people not respecting my journey. For example, with my first vintage, assuming I just started making wine as a lark, not realizing I’d spent eight years working in the industry to get to where I was.
What was your biggest failure?
I took a lower- job, and that put me in a position where I had to struggle financially. Women, in particular, we suffer from impostor syndrome. We don’t always know when to speak up. My mom said a closed mouth doesn’t always get fed.
How did that impact your approach?
After going through that myself, I wanted to find a way to prevent other women from going through what I went through, especially if they’re working with me. That’s the point of carving a path.
What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?
I have yet to problem-solve it! It’s just finding balance. This last year has been the best but also the hardest year of my life. It’s a reflection of my struggle with finding balance. I haven’t been able to enjoy all the “success” that I’ve had. But I’m finding slowly when to say no, when to say yes. That’s the number one question I ask other people: How do they find balance?
What would you like to see happen in the drink world over the next five years?
More openness to experimentation. Everything that I do as a producer is rooted in tradition. It gets more fun when we experiment and collaborate with others. Collaboration across boundaries, wine, beer, cider, spirits. You don’t have to stick to your lane. When you cross over lanes, that’s when it gets fun.
What do you wish would disappear from drinks culture?
Projection of our subjections on others. Drink what you like, and don’t project your expectations on other people.
What do you wish you knew five years ago?
How long it would take to clean snow off my car! I’m from California, and now I live in Vermont. That’s the biggest plight, adding the extra hour to your day.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received?
I didn’t receive this directly: Never take advice from someone less successful than you.
How do you define ambition?
Staying true to yourself by any means necessary, and with intent and purpose.