NASA engineer is Alabama's first certified Black woman winemaker

Rada Griffin works long days as a senior software engineer and subject matter expert for NASA, providing support to the project that's going to put the first woman on the moon in 2024.

"It's a big responsibility for us to ensure that everything goes perfectly," she said. "And then, whenever I can find the time, I do my thing with wine."

Rada Griffin

Credit: Charles Beason/Provided

Rada Griffin poses with a glass of wine.

Griffin, based in Huntsville, Alabama, juggles three lives in one. On weekdays, she's a contractor for NASA. On weekends she hosts wine and food pairings - and sometimes flies to Napa Valley, California, to check the progress of her first vintage. In 2019, after honing her wine skills in a series of online classes authored by an instructor in the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, she launched Anissa Wakefield Wines, becoming the first certified Black woman winemaker in Alabama.

"Wine to me is food," said Griffin, who also works locally as a private chef. "The same way you view food, when a chef puts a plate in front of you and it's beautiful and you can't wait to taste it, that's the same way I think about wine. So I just wanted to do more."

Griffin began Cornell's online course, authored by Cheryl Stanley, a senior lecturer in the Nolan School, and delivered by eCornell, right as she began her research into winemaking. Soon after completing Stanley's Wine Essentials course in early 2020, Griffin began the certificate program focused on wines of California, the Pacific Northwest, and New York, also offered by Stanley through eCornell.

"The professor was just amazing," Griffin says. "I just can't say enough good things about her, or the program."

Early last year, Griffin returned once more to complete Stanley's other certificate program centered on wines of France. More than general knowledge, she says she's gained friendships as well. "All of the students from the classes, they really become more like family - all because you have this shared love of wine."

Rada Griffin in Napa

Credit: Provided

Rada Griffin visiting one of the Napa, California vineyards where she is sourcing her grapes.

Griffin also recently launched a local wine club, the Black Cuvee, for fellow wine enthusiasts in Alabama.

Despite Griffin's love for the wine world, she says she's found the road to inclusion and acceptance difficult for Black women and the Black community in general. "Particularly for African Americans, we're trying to catch up with being included in the wine industry," she said. "There's a movement happening with Black people getting into the wine industry. You see it with celebrities and athletes alike. I'm hoping to do my part with bringing that forward."

Being based in Alabama can be a challenge, too.

"The state is still behind the times when it comes to wine," she said. "We just got to the point of getting wines shipped to residences in the state in October of last year."

Her success hasn't come without complications. "Because of the 2019 fires in California, the grapes absorbed some of the smokiness, and we just didn't want to take a chance with that harvest from my first year," she said. Reluctantly, she and her onsite wine director went back to the drawing board.

Thankfully, Griffin says, things are starting to turn around. "We watched the grapes just take off this past April - all the way through harvesting in September and October," she said. "Now I'm blending."

With bottling and packing soon to come after blending, Griffin is looking ahead.

"Ultimately, my goal is to get the wines on the airlines," she said. "When you're flying, and you're choosing between white and red and you open that booklet and read the wine brands, I want Anissa Wakefield Wines to be there. That's the level I want to get to. That's some years away."

Jamie Bonan is a content marketing specialist at eCornell.

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