We're entering into the heat of the American natural wine fair season, kicking up with this weekend's Brumaire event in Oakland, followed in short order by Third Coast Soif in Chicago. Both events are long since completely sold out (with like hundreds of people queuing hopefully on wait lists), but fear not, unticketed reader: Sprudge Wine is partnered with both events to bring you live on-site social media coverage and in-depth content right here on the site. We'll take you there even if you can't make it yourself.[And if you *are* there, but things get, erm, a bit blurry towards the end, we've got your back as well.]
These fairs are a who's who of natural winemakers from around the world—heroes and cult figures alike, household natty wine names and relative unknowns waiting to be discovered. That's part of the fun at these fairs, trying out something new and coming away with a fresh wine crush. But there's something rare on offer at this weekend's Brumaire event: a high intensity debut for a North American winemaker's brand new label.
That would be ZAFA Wines, the work of Vermont based winemaker Krista Scruggs. Originally from California, a global wine career saw Scruggs land as an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager alongside Deirdre Heekin, whose La Garagista wines have helped redefine winemaking in New England with a focus on Biodynamics in the vineyard and natural vinification practices.
Scruggs will pour five new ZAFA wines at Brumaire, including a skin fermented ancestral method sparkling wine made from the Crescent grape (grown at La Garagista), and a variety of Vermont native wine grapes co-fermented with apples and crab apples. Wines will be unlabeled—”It got to the point where I was stressing more about the labels than the wine,” Scruggs tells me in the interview below—but Brumaire-goers will do well to try this stuff early, and expect a crowd.
I spoke more by phone with Krista Scruggs from Little Rock, Arkansas, en route by car on a cross-country road trip from Vermont to Oakland.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hi Krista! Thanks for talking with Sprudge Wine. By way of introduction, you're from California—how did you wind up making wine in Vermont?
Hello from Little Rock! Well—I knew over the years of traveling and working with small winemakers that I wanted to not just make wine, but to farm. I knew I wanted to be a vigneron and frankly that was not going to happen in California, because of financial reasons and having access to land—I knew I wouldn't have the same kind of agency there. So I started looking outside of California, and I knew who Deirdre was from her books and from researching who the real true vignerons were in North America. She poured at the first Brumaire, and did a tasting following that at Ordinaire, and I went and met her and tried the wines. I said, you know, “I want to at least do a harvest with you,” and from there we talked for a couple hours. I sent an email following up, and that led to a job offer—with the understanding that we both knew I would eventually be starting my own label.
From there it's all happened very quickly over the last two years. I've been working with Deirdre as a winemaker and assistant farmer, and then this opportunity happened at a place called Ellison Estate on Lake Champlain, where I'd be able to work as a farmer and winemaker, and my work would be vested, meaning I'd be given fruit to work with for my own label. I'll have fruit all for myself, and I'll actually be selling some of it back to La Garagista.
When you say fruit, do you mean apples too? I'm super curious about these co-fermented wines.
Yeah! So, what I'm pouring at Brumaire is going to include co-fermeneted wines. My first vintage had a plan, and that included from from Deirdre and Caleb Barber and their West Addison vineyard, but there was another vineyard I was hoping to reclaim, but by the time I got back from Texas that vineyard wasn't touched. Japanese beetles ate all the leaves, photosynthesis stopped, and I lost all that fruit. And then I had to, you know, figure out what to do. So I was able to get some must from Deirdre and Caleb, and then I just foraged apples from throughout Mt. Hunger, where La Garagista is, and also from a friend who was driving across the country. I just did what I had to do to co-ferment.
Do you think you'll continue to work with that style in future harvests? Or do you really just want to work with grapes, and this came out of necessity?
Well it definitely came out of necessity this year but you know, it ending up being so interesting, and now yes—I will be processing like this from here on out. Deirdre and I did a sparkling perry together as well that will be released as a collaboration, and we'll do that together every year. Working with co-ferments came out of necessity but it changed the whole game for me. I didn't think I would be doing co-ferments but I fell in love with it.
The terroir where you are serves those things so well—you have some really old orchards there, right?
Yes! And being a producer without money, you know—there's fruit for free! Why wouldn't you take advantage of that? Apples are so resilient. For me it's a no-brainer to be working with apples.
Where does the name “ZAFA” come from?
So, the original name I was going to name it was “Rabble Rouser,” but I got a text message from a friend being like, “Oh there's someone in California with a name just like that…” and apparently they got that name over a copyright infringement, and had money to defend their copyright. And so I knew I had to come up with something else. Then one day, Deirdre and I were driving to a vineyard and listening to Krista Tippett, and they were talking about the book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which contains the two themes of fuku and zafa—the idea of a spell and a counterspell. And that resonated with me. In that context to me, it made sense—who I am as a person, working in Vermont, working with hybrids. Everything I do is a counterspell and its own unlikely story that has naturally evolved.
You've been able to pour these wines with colleagues there in Vermont, but is Brumaire the true premiere of Zafa?
Yes, it is officially the premiere.
That's exciting! But also…are you partially terrified? I would be partially terrified. Or are you just really thrilled because you're ready to go and the wines are ready to go? Perhaps a bit of both?
It's a mixture of both. I did a final taste-thru on Friday, before leaving on this road trip. I've been really anxious, but doing this road trip has helped with my anxiety. I'm excited, and I'm ready to have my wines poured. Bradford and Quinn from Brumaire have been so supportive of me, and Deirdre of course, and for them to invite me to go out there—just trusting me, trusting the work I've done, that the wines I'm going to pour will show well, it's a confidence booster but it gives me anxiety at the same time.
It's definitely a big stage!
Yeah! I'm pouring amongst my heroes. To be pouring among the people who inspired me to do what I'm doing right now…it's insane, honestly.
What's something about making wine in Vermont that most people don't know?
Well, most people ask, “You can make wine in Vermont?”
[laughs] Yes—the fact that it exists in the first place, that's what people don't know?
Right. I think the fact that we work with the grapes that *should* be growing there, and farm them sustainably, I think that people would be surprised by how easy it is to work with these grapes. And how sustainable it can be.
Who's your hero winemaker? Who makes your favorite wine?
Wow. I mean, that changes. My hero, my mentor, is Deirdre Heekin. But who makes my favorite wine? That changes on a weekly, daily basis. I don't have a hands-down favorite wine.
Is there anybody at Brumaire you're excited to try an check out the new stuff?
Matassa. Pheasant's Tears. Chad Hinds and Martha Stuomen, to just see what they're doing with their new vintage. But there's so much I want to try before the day is done. And then I have to drive back to Vermont—I have to get back to pruning.
Photos and social media images courtesy of Krista Scruggs, used by permission.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.