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Winemaker Krista Scruggs to the Beer World: 'Are You OK?!'

February 20, 2020

By Sarah Freeman, February 20, 2020

Krista Scruggs has become a household name—in certain households, that is—over the past two years. She’s been recognized as one of the most promising winemakers by Wine Enthusiast, Imbibe, Vinepair, Punch, Vice, and Bon Appetit. I’m a journalist who has interviewed hundreds of people over the past decade. Regardless, sitting at a small table in the corner of Foam Brewers, overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, we’re both a little nervous.

Scruggs has built her career on the idea of collaboration. Her Burlington taproom, Co Cellars, is a joint effort with Shacksbury cider. Many of her sparkling wines—like her 2018 Word Is Born and The Science of Sleep—are fermented with cider. This year, she’s turned her eye to beer as a new avenue for collaboration and is anxious to be accepted and respected by a community that played a pivotal role in her success.

As vocal as she’s been about telling her story—her motto is it’s “just fucking fermented juice”—she’s equally vocal about the downside of her sudden fame. “Instead of talking about my farming or my wines, I’m spotlighted for my race and my gender because that is the story people want,” Scruggs told Bon Appetit last year. “I’m proud of those things, and I’m happy people want to highlight them because it means they are acknowledging that I have struggled more in a homogenized industry. But they want the angle for a story without ever getting to know me, or they want my name in their portfolio without ever trying my wines.”

With that at the forefront of my mind, I sit down with her over a foeder-aged sour and farmhouse-inspired saison to, well, get to know Krista—to better understand her journey, which brought her from California to Vermont, and leave the pigeonholing aside.

In the past you’ve collaborated with wineries and cider-makers. This year you will be collaborating with several breweries. Why are you turning your attention to beer?

I’m originally from California. Of course, I had wine at the table all the time. But I happened to have a lot of friends who were into beer, and it gave me an opportunity to experience beer in a way I never thought I would. In hindsight, I was drinking Sierra Nevada when I was 19, which I think was pretty fucking bold for a palate at the time. I’m 35 now, so that was 16 years ago—granted there was a lot of Pabst along the way—but I remember the first time I tasted Cantillon. I can’t say that about wine. I know the feeling I felt the first time I tasted wine—particularly when I was able to decipher drinking wine that I felt was alive—but I can’t name that first bottle that changed me.

I remember the first time I had a Budweiser, too, and my dad telling me, 'Taste this. That look on your face—you don’t want to drink this.' This was age four or five and I remember that. 

The way that I was tasting wine, I was tasting beer that way and going to bottle shares. I’m so thankful for these friends who did that. I would bring a bottle of wine and see that connection in a way that I never thought wine and beer could, sharing the same space. The reason why America should be grateful for craft beer is because we wouldn’t have where we're at with natural wine if it wasn’t for that phase of craft beer eight to ten years ago. As craft beer is educating people to taste a saison or taste a sour beer in a way that our palates are not built for, that primed American for natural wine. But we have craft beer to thank for that. The beauty about beer is that, in wine there’s this pretense—there is pretense in beer and I’m not giving any passes for that—but the barrier to break through is less intimidating than wine.

I think every winemaker wants to be a brewer and every brewer wants to be a winemaker.”

How do you balance this contemporary idea of collaboration with more traditional aspects of winemaking?

I make traditional sparkling wine. Everything I do is honoring tradition, but through my experience. I can be respectful of tradition, while still telling my story through it. This is why I’m doing collaborations with breweries this year. It’s part of my story. In terroir one of the elements in the winemaker, and this is how i get have people understand me. Why stylistically I do what I do with grapes, and why my palate is what it is, is because of beer. But just as much as for some people that bottle of wine they can remember. For me, I remember when I truly fell in love with beer, in a way I never thought I could fall in love with beer. It wasn’t the love of my life—clearly wine was—but I can still honor that relationship. These collaborations are my love letter to beer and how it’s inspired me.

Since you have this deep connection to beer, why did you decide to pursue winemaking instead of brewing?

I think every winemaker wants to be a brewer and every brewer wants to be a winemaker. Honestly. My why is because I realized my brain operates differently than a brewer. It’s why I want to do collaborations too, because it forces you to stretch your brain. A brewer is more like a baker and a winemarker is a chef. I’m not worried in the cellar in the sense of, if things go a way that I didn’t plan it, this is going to be fun. I don’t think you have that in beer. There’s a formula and it’s a little more linear and unforgiving than wine. I never made that jump because I wasn’t meant to, but I admire it so much.

What do you think the wine world could learn from beer or vice versa?

The grass is always greener, but beer is in an interesting place. Like, ‘Hey, friend, I’m trying to come over to hang out, but are you OK?’ That’s how I feel about beer right now. That’s my safety point—it’s a classic tale that it takes a lot of beer to make wine—it’s a palate check-in for me and I don’t know how to do that with beer right now, because I don’t know what’s going on.

In terms of what?

I think there’s a lot of people doing things without intention and you can taste it. People can say that about wine right now. We’re in an interesting place in beverage, and maybe this is a reflection of the generation, but there’s a lot of people like, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ With beer, I taste that. And as a proponent for tradition, this is so disrespectful. As a winemaker, I only get 20 to 30 chances in a lifetime. Meaning I only get one chance per year—I like to put that in context for people. What I envy about brewers is you can take a whole year to perfect something.

What is it like being a small winemaker in Vermont, a place where customers are more savvy and interested in beer than wine?

Vermont is not known for wine, but there are a few exceptions now. I have been very lucky and thank god for the beer community. I say that in a non-denominational way. To have people come into Co to taste Zafa who are like, ‘Yeah, we’re on our way to Hill Farmstead.’ People drive across the country to get Shaun [Hill]’s beer, and to hold me at the same level, and treat me in that way, basically what I’m trying to say is that to be held at that same level in a beer-drinker’s eyes, to have my name put by his, I mean this genuinely, I’m so flattered.

We have to give so much respect to White Claw. They don’t give a fuck.”

Last year hard seltzer came out of nowhere and acted as a mirror or a gut-check of sorts for the beer industry. How is the wine industry responding to the hard seltzer craze?

You know, the wine world is saying that too. If only Zima had that pull. This is very telling. Honestly, in the wine world, part of the conversation is, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ It’s hitting everyone: cider, beer, and wine. Don’t make me think, just let me drink. You guys are getting way too heady, you brought us way to in close to shit we don’t care about.

The seltzer response is, ‘Do you see yourself? Just give me my fucking drink. Don’t get me too drunk. I want to hang out.’ We have to give so much respect to White Claw. They don’t give a fuck. Even I jumped on it—I got White Claw for harvest. Honestly, I think I needed this too, because I just need a break. I’m being judged in everything I do, god forbid I drink a White Claw.

I thought I made it when I got a hot dog roller in my space. This next wave is when I get a frozen machine, put some Zafa wine, freeze that shit down, and do a fucking frozen slushie. That’s my way of saying, yes, my bottles cost $44, because my team and I work our asses off, and I’m not going to be ashamed of that. But, also, I’m not saving any lives here, and this is just wine.

In the Bon Appetit article you touched on this idea that it’s one thing to talk about women, people of color, or the LQBTQ community in the beverage industry, but it’s another thing to truly support them. How can we be better supporting them?

It’s the pocketbook. I’m going to spend my money this way. That’s how. Even when you give someone that platform, it needs to be backed by people purchasing their product and truly supporting it. There’s publications that have talked about me that have changed my life, but there’s a downside too to it. There’s this expectation of, ‘This shit better be good.’ Honestly, I had someone say that to me. To be in this space, as an outsider, you need to be ten times better. That’s for people of color in this industry and that’s for women in this industry.

Do you think that’s a symptom of the spotlight being on you or of there being fewer people who look like you in the industry?

It’s a gatekeeping tactic. I deal with that. I’m multifaceted, but as a woman, you already have to deal with that. As a person of color, I have to deal with that. As queer person, I have to deal with that. Combine it together, that’s my life. Fuck your seat at the table—I’m building my own table. If I have to ask permission to be at your table, it’s not a table that’s built for me. I’m building my own and that’s what I’m doing, and, unfortunately that’s what we have to do because that table, no matter what, is going to be uncomfortable.

When it comes to the spotlight, I’m not allowed to be a human being at the baseline. I have to be exceptional all the time. For a winemaker, fuck yeah, bring that on. I get off on that, because I get to be pushed. As a human, it’s trying.

What’s your dream collaboration?

It’s going to sound so corny, but it’s coming true. The fact that I can reach out to brewers who I respect and admire, call any of them, and be like, ‘Yo, let’s do something,’ and them be down. My dream is just to have the space to do this and, after this vintage, people get it and it resonates and I can tell a story.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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