fb-pixel Skip to main content

With every sip, a labor of love

In Vermont, a winemaker is cultivating a legacy that pays homage to the Black folk who built this country and is celebrating life and the future of farming

ZAFA Wines owner Krista Scruggs in Isle La Motte, Vermont.
ZAFA Wines owner Krista Scruggs in Isle La Motte, Vermont.Caleb Kenna (Custom credit)

As a child, I never went to sleep at bedtime. I loved to hear them laugh.

I stayed up late, reading pages of Norton Juster and listening to the grown folk in the other room laugh from their spirit and their bellies. Happy howls. They played backgammon and spades and listened to old records by Rick James and Donny Hathaway.

The smell of weed wafted beneath the cracks of my bedroom door. And I could hear the clink of their glasses. Some nights, they’d drink Crown Royal and Coca-Cola. But what I remember most is they never touched the bottle of Dom Perignon. Or maybe it was Perrier.

Advertisement



It was a fancy bottle with a foil top and when I close my eyes I can still see there was a P on it. The bottle was bought to celebrate my birth, to be opened when I was old enough to taste it. But over the years we lost many homes and storage units of many things. That bottle was one of them.

When they were together, and even when they weren’t, my parents believed in the power of parties. Not in the grand way, but in the intimate gatherings over food and drink and joy. When they had something, and when they had nothing, they always found a way for fun.

They knew a human truth: People deserve place and celebration. And up in Vermont, on the islands of Lake Champlain, Krista Scruggs is growing a legacy of both with ZAFA Wines.

Founded in 2018, ZAFA, with its focus on hybrid grapes and apples, as well as cider and co-fermentation, created a new conversation in wine. That same year, Scruggs was named a Wine Enthusiast “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemaker.” Last year, Bon Appetit called her natural sparkling wines the most exciting and delicious in the business.

Advertisement



ZAFA, inspired by the counterspell to fukú, the traumatic curse of colonialism in Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” is only a few years old and yet a lifetime in the making.

A child of California’s farming belt, Scruggs grew up helping her grandfather work his land as a little kid and as a college student. She still wears plaid, pocketed work shirts in his honor. Before ZAFA, she spent nearly a decade learning the business: a few years working with a major wine company and a few more with winemakers in Washington, Texas, Italy, France, and Vermont. ZAFA is the product of Scruggs’s radical imagination to claim her space in winemaking.

Earlier this year, she secured 56 acres of land on Isle La Motte. A Black, queer woman with her own farm, her own land, her wine, done her way.

“I don’t want to sit at a table I had to ask permission to sit at,” said Scruggs, 36. “We build our own. We already built this country. I am the extension of my grandparents, my parents, my mother who taught me closed mouths don’t get fed and to speak up for what I want and be my authentic self.”

”What I am growing is not about me,” she added “It’s about the community and the land that feeds me.”

Episode 6: Land is a beautiful resistance
A Beautiful Resistance: Black joy and Black lives, as celebrated by culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt. Join us on Instagram @abeautifulresistance. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Photo by Caleb Kenna/Special to the Globe, Commentary & curation by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff)

TJ Douglas owns South End wine, beer and spirits store Urban Grape with his wife Hadley. He called Scruggs an old school kind of rock star, in it for the love.

Advertisement



“What’s unique about her is that she sees the importance of being able to break down barriers and buy her own land that she has a say over, to have that ownership alongside the passion and work ethic of being able to make these great products to share that with the world is pretty spectacular,” he said. “It’s important to be able to do your own thing, because there’s not a lot of opportunities for us. We have to make our own way.”

ZAFA sometimes flies off Urban Grape’s shelves faster than he can stock them. It’s not because she is Black or queer. It’s because she makes good wine. Douglas hopes as she expands her harvest with her growing land, more people will be able to experience a ZAFA toast.

We all have our thing. For his mom, it was Haffenreffer. He remembers as a kid playing with the puzzles and riddles in the caps. His kids see him and his wife drinking Oakville cabernets.

“We cheers each other at dinner and teach them to always look at who you cheer in the eye,” he said of their family tradition. “So when they have children or a second generation they will remember their dad and mom started this not just as a profession but for our love of what brings our family together.”

What Scruggs is doing is both a celebration of life, and a bet on the future. Every year a winemaker gets one shot to get that crop right.

Advertisement



This year, her chance almost passed by. The birds didn’t migrate on schedule. Climate change. They feasted off the fruits of Scruggs’ labor: 14 acres worth. Luckily, she works with apples, too. Fortunately, she had another farm she was leasing in New Hampshire. Passionately, a small but mighty team of about 10 people worked long days that stretched into weeks and tons of fruit to cast a counterspell — a zafa — to finish the season strong.

10/30/20 Isle La Motte, Vt. ZAFA Wines owner Krista Scruggs, left, with Marreya Bailey, center, and Sara Bennett in Isle La Motte, Vermont. (Caleb Kenna for the Globe)
10/30/20 Isle La Motte, Vt. ZAFA Wines owner Krista Scruggs, left, with Marreya Bailey, center, and Sara Bennett in Isle La Motte, Vermont. (Caleb Kenna for the Globe)

Harvest ain’t easy. Every farmer faces challenges. Scruggs is one of them. Beyond the issues inherent in running a small business, ZAFA has run into problems with the state.

Vermont regulators last month announced they were investigating Scruggs over licensing and compliance issues. The state alleges Scruggs was making and selling wine without the necessary licenses and without telling investors, and issued cease-and-desist orders for parts of her business.

ZAFA remains steadfast in its mission.

“We have been and will continue to be transparent with all of those with whom we do business,” Scruggs said. “As a Black woman farmer and small business owner, I remain committed to responsible farming, open communication, and running a business that strives to provide opportunity to those traditionally marginalized based on race and gender. This has not changed. We look forward to resolving this matter quickly so we can focus on what we do best.”

Advertisement



Her transparency, commitment, passion, and innovation is what draws people from all over the country to work with her.

Sara Bennett, a Colorado restaurateur, joined Scruggs for harvest this season to learn.

“To get a small glimpse into the way she thinks, she is so in tune with the land and the grapes and grateful for every bit of fruit she is able to receive,” said Bennett, 30. “And as a woman of color, to see her be unapologetically herself and be successful? That has been the most amazing thing for me to see. As someone who has spent their life tamping down her blackness to fit into what a Black woman should be, I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Marreya Bailey, a sommelier and ZAFA cellar hand assistant, sees Scruggs as an inspiration.

“With Covid and with what happened to George Floyd, we have had so many losses and frustrations. But there is always light in the darkness,” said Bailey, 32, a Minnesota native. “Working with Krista, a natural winemaking pioneer and a fellow Black woman, with her wisdom, advice, and innovation, I am manifesting my own goals of becoming a natural winemaker.”

After hours of plucking grapes and picking apples, and going through the entirely exhausting and beautiful dance of making wine, Scruggs makes her team a big meal and they share bigger laughs.

“The root of any fermentation is to nourish and to fill you with joy, it’s meant for pleasure,” Scruggs said. “I don’t think I fell in love with wine. I think I fell in love with what wine does to bring people together.”

The goal for each harvest is that someday, someone will sit around a table with their friends and pop a bottle of ZAFA. It will become a family fave the way Scruggs remembers her mom and grandma drinking Robert Mondavi and all the dancing at the weekly family barbecue. The way I remember my parents staying up late to live it up.

The counterspell isn’t in the drink. It’s in the joy. And we all deserve a strong pour.

Coming next: Season 2 in 2021. Sign up to be notified of future events. In the meantime, the conversation continues @abeautifulresistance. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Playlist, Episode 6, curated by Dart Adams, below, and also on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music. See more at Globe.com/ABeautifulResistance.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.