How to Learn the Rules of Winemaking and Then Break Them

"Being a woman, a person of color, and queer, I am proud to be diversifying this industry," says Krista Scruggs.

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Jul 12 2017, 4:00pm

Krista Scruggs. Photo by the author.

There's nothing unusual about a mid-twenties career change. But there is something unlikely about a California girl who grew up drinking unremarkable red wine finding her calling as a winemaker on a small biodynamic farm in far northern Vermont.

Krista Scruggs could hardly imagine it herself.

Given the fast-rising popularity of natural wine, however, it might not seem so surprising that this is what's happening at Vermont's La Garagista. When founder Deirdre Heekin decided to convert a former dairy farm into a chemical-free, polyculture paradise for wine grapes and vegetables, it became the only organic vineyard in Vermont, and the only one working naturally. In Vermont, like all over the world, most winemakers use modern techniques in the vineyard and cellar, working with fertilizers and fungicides, relying on yeast additions to jumpstart fermentation, and often removing acidity through additives. But La Garagista is a rare bird, employing wild-growing and farmed cover crops to protect the vines and nourish the soils; foot-crushing grapes and vinifying without corrections; and generally just letting nature run its course. The result: insanely delicious and unique wines.

Krista never thought that she would wind up helping Deirdre at her renegade operation while she was at her previous job, working for one of the largest wine conglomerates in the country, Constellation Brands. Having grown up sipping the iconic wines of Robert Mondavi, one of the founders of Napa Valley, Krista didn't even know that there was such a thing as "natural wine."

An experience working the harvest season in Cahors, Southern France—the ancestral home of malbec—changed Krista's life. She arrived knowing no French, but found it easy communicate with the family who owned the organic vineyard, "via our palates, enthusiasm, and passion for the land and fruit." Krista realized there that she wanted to be a vigneron, rather than a "winemaker" in the technological sense.

Krista in the vineyards of Vermont. Photo courtesy of Krista Scruggs.

Krista recounts all of this to me over a glass of fizzy pét-nat—wine that's naturally sparkling, due to residual CO2 that occurs during fermentation, rather than having a secondary fermentation as done in Champagne. We've met up at in New York, where Deirdre has just given a seminar on the intriguing grapes they work with up in Vermont. Never without a wide-brimmed felt hat to hold down her bleach-blonde curls, Krista smiles from ear to ear.

After working in France, Krista went back to California and began hanging out at Bar Ordinaire, an Oakland venue designed after Parisian caves-a-manger (wine shops that serve snacks and pour by the glass). "I had no idea that what I was drinking was natural wine," says 32-year-old Krista, her eyes sparkling as she swirls her glass—but even after a lifetime of drinking Robert Mondavi, she loved the wild, freeform taste of these small-batch wines, made from organic vineyards, without stabilizing preservatives. It was "fucking delicious on a new level." One day, Deirdre came in to pour her wines. Within minutes, Krista had made up her mind; she told Deirdre she wanted to fly across the country to learn alongside her how to be a New World-style vigneron—working the vines, making the wine, all with their own hands.

But Deirdre Heekin isn't just a vigneron; she's a successful woman in the overwhelmingly male winemaking world. And it was partly because of this that Krista felt the urge to ask Deirdre if she could go work for her, on the spot.

"Being a woman, a person of color, and queer, I am proud to be diversifying this industry, an industry dominated by males in particular, and white males," says Krista. "Having a woman as a mentor is important to me. Learning about wine, and not seeing anyone who looked like me, it's important to me to expand the culture of wine."

As we talk, we drink La Garagista's Ci Confonde wine (there's lot of Italian used in Deirdre's world, as she and her husband Caleb fell in love with food and wine while working in Tuscany). Made from the Frontenac gris grape, a red-skinned variety with amber-colored juice, bred to thrive in cold weather, the wine is a pale salmon hue with a cloudy sheen, and it has an aroma of crushed rose petals. I taste mine and revel in the light bubbles; the rich texture; the gentle acidity; the salty, lemon curd notes. The bottom line: the wine is fresh, savory, and a perfect stimulant for conversation.

"Learning about wine, and not seeing anyone who looked like me, it's important to me to expand the culture of wine." Photo courtesy of Krista Scruggs.

Working for Deirdre was a radical move away from the kind of alchemy happening at the Constellation tank farm, where the focus was on transforming juice into a stable, consistent product. For natural winemakers, the focus is on the vineyard, and wine is meant to be alive, different from vintage to vintage. The lifestyle was a perk for Krista and reminded her of her time in France—long lunches in the vineyard, followed by a siesta, were part of Deirdre and Caleb's routine, thanks to their experiences in Tuscany. Obviously, Krista was down to follow this daily plan. Winemaking at La Garagista wasn't only a job, but also a lifestyle, and it was less about computers, but rather about listening to the land, and learning from Deirdre and Caleb. Krista learned to trust her palate when making wine, instead of doing lab analysis.

And in no short time, Krista has determined to make her own natural wine, under the label "Rabble Rouser Wines.". The idea is to make one wine in Vermont, as an ode to the place that first captured Krista's heart; but she's also decided to venture into Texas, the complete opposite of the climate spectrum. In Texas, Krista will be making pét-nat with a hybrid grape called Ruby Cab—a cross between cabernet sauvignon and carignan—alongside Dan McLaughlin of Robert Clay Vineyards. From California, the most well-known winemaking place in the US, Krista has gravitated to two of the least famous. "Just as Deirdre has done in Vermont, I want to change the perception that hybrids are second class citizens," in Texas," Krista says. This could be especially important with the rapidly changing climate, she adds.

As we throw back the rest of our wine, I ask Krista to share some of her pioneering spirit with those who want to explore natural wine. "Taste, taste—as much as you can," she says. "Use your local wine bar as a resource for education. Our palate is the greatest tool; one can only master it by tasting constantly."

And it doesn't hurt to be a little adventurous, to be a rabble rouser, to enter into a culture where nobody looks like you—it could lead to a major life change, or you may just change the industry itself.