This Land Is My Land: Krista Scruggs Is One of America's Most Intriguing Winemakers
March 28, 2021. Editor's note: Since the publication of this story, allegations of sexual harassment at ZAFA Wines have come to light, as ZAFA Wines has acknowledged on their Instagram page. The article below reads as originally published in our April 2021 issue.
The name of my winery, ZAFA, comes from the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. In his telling, "fukú" and "zafa" are words brought over from Africa to the Dominican Republic, and when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, he brought over this fukú: a curse. Anyone who is brown, really any marginalized person in this country, carries that curse.
The only way to overcome a fukú is through a zafa—a counterspell. In 2019, I embarked on a path to owning 56 acres of land in Vermont where I am, for the first time, growing my own grapes to turn into wine. I'm a Black queer woman doing the work of my ancestors here in America. My having access to land—I don't know what more of a counterspell there is to the fukú of colonialism. Everything within the umbrella of ZAFA Wines symbolizes anti-colonialism. It is the opposite of Christopher Columbus to leave something better than when you found it. As a farmer, that means improving the soil, using methods where I give back rather than take away.
In America, only 1.3% of farm owners are Black. In Vermont, where there are 7,000 farms, I am currently only the 18th Black farmer to own land. Those numbers should be jarring and make everyone uncomfortable. I intend to do right by this land.
Everything I set my intentions for has come to fruition, though it hasn't been in the way I expected. From age 5, I lived and breathed basketball. I thought I was going to be the first woman in the NBA, and then the WNBA was created, so I was like, I guess I'm going to have to dominate that. Then I had a knee injury. I moved to San Francisco and was radio DJing, doing web design, and exploring different paths. I was yearning for something bigger than myself—something I couldn't live without.
I was pursuing a career as a firefighter when a family friend told my aunt about an opportunity at Constellation Brands. Wine and food and sitting at a table and eating together were so important to my family when I was growing up, and my brain automatically went to Robert Mondavi from seeing magazines on my mom's table—it's iconic. At my interview, I thought, "I'm going to get a job offer." That's how confident I was.
My job title was logistics coordinator, and being naive of what corporate winemaking actually is, I envisioned it as most people might—grape stomping. But my role accessed every point of contact in operations except the viticulture. There's an intricate process that goes into that $12 bottle of wine you see at a Shaw's supermarket, and because I'm a curious and enthusiastic person, I would show up to work at 5 o'clock in the morning—but this is not how I thought wine was made. Never while I was working there did I go to any of the vineyards.
When I was growing up, there was a tank farm across from my grandmother's home in Fresno, California. There were these giant white metal containers used to make wine in bulk. As a kid, I had no idea what they were, just that they had a particular smell. During those first weeks at Constellation Brands, I learned what those tanks were, and what that scent from childhood was—500,000 gallons of wine fermenting. But how did the grapes get to this state?
Constellation Brands offers awesome benefits, and they were willing to pay for an education at the UC Davis Extension program. I wanted to understand where wine came from, so I enrolled, but the experience was mostly in the classroom, still too separate from the land.
I started sending notes to winemakers, saying, "I'll give you all of me; give me all of you. Just feed me and give me a place to sleep. I want to learn." The first to say yes was a couple with one acre on Anderson Island in Washington, where I learned how to cut and prune vines. It felt so lovely. It hit me when I was out there in my rain jacket, pruning by myself, thinking, "Finally. This is what I wanted to learn. I'm living my dream." And then: "I want more."
For a few years, I traveled, working in vineyards in exchange for room and board. In 2015, I worked with Philippe Bessieres in Cahors. Domaine de l' Antenet was one of the first certified organic vineyards in that region, and in the early '90s, they completely stopped using sulfur, sulfites, and any additives. This winemaker was the polar opposite of the world I came from—and exactly what I hoped for.
There is a thing that happens with some wines where you just understand it. There are wines that give me indescribable chills in my arms. Wine is a living form of the energy from the person who's making it. Even if you're alone, a wine can distribute the energy from all the hands that went into it. Philippe changed my life. He didn't speak English, and I didn't speak French, but I wanted to so I could let him know his wines made me set an intention: I was going to be a grower and a winemaker.
The wines I knew I wanted to make (and do make) are intentional in every way—as I say it, no fining, filtering, additives, or funny business. No herbicides or pesticides in the vineyard, just fermented juice from responsibly farmed living fruit. Simply put, wine is farming. To do that, I had to see things through from the start, and that meant starting with the land.
Back in America, I got a job managing a vineyard in Grand Isle, Vermont, and fell in love with the Champlain Islands. I knew the manifestation of all my work had to happen there. A tour of an Isle La Motte property with then-owners Leon and Judy gave me chills. They stood by me during nine months of struggling to get financing and then filing with the Vermont Land Trust, which will hold the land for me for the next three to five years as I build my business until I can take full ownership of it, and kept reassuring me they weren't selling the land to me—they were passing it on to me. When I got it, I bawled like a baby.
Having these 56 acres, I can challenge my own insecurities. My cellar is truly an anxiety-free zone for me because the worst that can happen is still creation—even if that means vinegar. I carry that fearlessness because there are substantial things in my day-to-day life as a young Black woman walking the streets in America that are more of a threat to me than me pursuing my dreams.
We closed on the property later than we were supposed to, and then I assembled a crew of friends—both amateur and pro—to help me plant. Some of the pros were concerned about the drainage. I'd done almost a year of extensive research on that land, but they got in my head a bit. I felt like everyone was doubting me. We had a big rain the day after our first planting. I walked by myself to the vineyard as if there was not a storm passing through it, and I cried—a mixture of joy and relief. The land was draining fine, the naysayers were wrong, and my work had paid off. The fact that I was so relieved was what bothered me the most. They had gotten under my skin, and walking out there, honestly nervous, I was disappointed that I had let people doubt me.
It's funny looking at how criticism affects me now; earlier in my life, I felt impenetrable. Maybe it's because ZAFA is not just me anymore. I now have people who are invested in this, and that makes me more sensitive. But when I'm by myself, there is no hesitation.
That's still how my brain works, and sometimes it's very frustrating for other people. Because ZAFA grew so quickly, right now I have a hand in everything. I'm learning to be a better leader and building organizational structures so that the Krista who started this journey and had a vision in France can continue to make wine while the business grows in a way that provides equity for my team.
I hope I never feel that self-doubt again because it's my land now. The land knows: I've fought for you, and you fought for me. Now, we're in a relationship together, despite everything that it took for me to get here. And we're just getting started.