Last week, NASA engineer and bustling winemaker Rada Griffin captivated NEWS-ONE with her unique story of becoming the first certified Black female winemaker in Alabama. Well, we actually had a chance to catch up with the Huntsville-based entrepreneur to hear more about her unique work as the creative mastermind behind Anissa Wakefield Wines, Griffin’s forthcoming wine company that she has been working tirelessly to launch since 2017.
The proud HBCU graduate from Tuskegee University became fully certified in winemaking by the state of Alabama in 2020, toiling through three of Cornell’s intensive six-week multi-course certificate programs to bring her dream of distributing Anissa Wakefield Wines one step closer to reality, but it hasn’t always been an easy journey. Griffin spoke to us about the initial spark that lit up her passion for wine, her exciting work on NASA’s pending moon mission, and where things are now currently for her burgeoning wine business.
Can you tell us about the work you do with NASA?
Without saying too much, I support the project that’s going to put the first woman on the moon in 2024.
We’ve been working really really hard the past three or four years on trying to make this milestone in two years to propel some people to the moon, and to continue space exploration. I don’t think we’ve been to the moon since 1972 with Apollo 17. It’s been a long time coming.
Your background is in software engineering? Correct?
Yes! I graduated from Tuskegee University and obtained my master’s in computer science as well. I also have degrees in business management and in business administration.
Congrats to you! In the world we live in today, it’s so important to have different degrees and more than one career path. The world is changing so fast!
Right? Because you never know how your passion is gonna change from one year to the next. And possibly one day to the next. You may wake up and be like, you know, I want to open a restaurant! You just never know your path until you’re actually on it.
So by day, you’re with NASA, by night, you’re creating your own wine. What sparked your passion for wine?
I’ve been self-taught since 2013, but I’ve been a private chef for over 15 years. I started teaching myself about wine back in 2013 just on a whim and it just grew. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.
Wine to me is just an extension of food. Like anything else, you would grow. Like a farmer grows vegetables, that’s the same thing you do with wine. It grows from a vine and you cultivate that vine and you let it do its thing. That creativity from Earth to the bottling process has always been fascinating to me.
I grew up in a family where my mom had a garden. I have a lot of farm-to-table influence. It really just goes back to your childhood and the things that you love and the things that you saw growing up. They really do have an impact on your life as you grow and become an adult, and you don’t realize that until you’re really trying to figure out what your passion is.
In 2018, I took my first chance and made my first vintage which was a blend of Chardonnay and Roussanne. It was a very small batch. My plan was to kick off the next vintage in 2019, but because of the fires, and then the onset of COVID at the beginning of 2020, that kind of pushed me back, so in 2020, I got my certificates from Cornell which was exciting and intimidating at first because there’s a lot of theory and method behind winemaking that you don’t get to see unless you’re really immersed into the industry. I had to learn that all in multiple six-week multi-course certificate programs. It was very fast-paced.
How difficult were the certificate programs at Cornell? Were you actually making wine or were you studying more of the science behind it?
It touches on viticulture. So, the growing of the vines and how the terroir has an effect on the type of grape. It also teaches you how to read the label and determine based on the region what the wine is going to taste like before you even taste it. So all that goes into what the grape will be because winemaking is only a small percent of the process. You also get to learn about the different regions. You have to do a blind taste test where you taste six to eight different wines and pair them with food. There are graded quizzes and you have to do a four-part project at the end of each course. It’s very hands-on and method-based as well.
Are you currently selling wines from the Anissa Wakefield brand?
So, in 2021, I started my next vintage which we will be releasing sometime this year if I can get my licenses and everything done through the state of Alabama, which has been a challenge. But you know, I expected that challenge. It makes me nervous and anxiety-filled because now, I have people who are like, ‘Where’s the wine?’ ‘How can we support you?’ I tell people I feel so bad because it’s really out of my control but it’ll happen when it’s supposed to and I hope people will still be just as excited and eager when it does happen.
That’s okay! Good things take time. We’ll be eager to try it when it does come out.
I’m excited! I think people are gonna love it. It’s a different blend. I will say that it’s another white blend.
Is it on the sweeter side or is it dry?
I won’t say yet. I want people to be surprised because if I say either one you know, people have a preference, right? A lot of southern wine drinkers like sweet wine and if I make just a sweet wine, then I can only target certain people. If I only make a dry wine, I can only satisfy this part of the demographic. I don’t want people to already put themselves in a category of not wanting to try the wine if I say which one it is.
As a part of my launch, I plan to do a blind tasting with food, so you won’t know if you’re drinking my wine or if you’re drinking another black-owned wine because I will have some of those products. I support everything we do!
There’s nothing like the element of surprise!
Yes! I host wine and food pairings here in Huntsville for us to kind of get acclimated to wine and taste wine in a different way than what we’ve been taught because a lot of us aren’t experienced with wine, and some people think it’s very pretentious. Some people think you only have red wine with beef and you only have white with cheese or other foods. I want to break that intimidation barrier down.
What’s your favorite type of wine?
I like them all! I don’t like very sweet wine, so you probably won’t catch me ordering a Moscato. That’s really really too sweet for me. If I am wanting something a little bit on the sweeter side, I will do a Riesling. If I’m going to go dry, I love an oaky buttery Chardonnay! That’s just my go-to. I love that full fermentation that the wine gets from the oakiness of the barrel and when it imparts that buttery, velvety toasty flavor. For reds, I am currently hooked on Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s hard because I’m trying to break myself off from it to get ready for my wine because my palate gets so used to it and other things don’t taste quite the same. I’ve been taking a fast so I haven’t had wine in three weeks. I’m really trying to cleanse my palate from wine so that when my wine arrives, I can really taste it.
In your interview with Cornell, you spoke about some of the challenges you face in the winemaking industry as a Black woman working to break barriers, do you still feel like you’re experiencing those challenges?
Yes, it doesn’t come without a challenge. The wine industry still is not comfortable with us and definitely not really comfortable with a Black woman that’s coming in and saying this is what I want, this is how I want to do it, and I know just as much as you. I will not lie, it was to the point where I thought about giving up several times because it’s just ridiculous the amount of nice nasty that you get from this white male-dominated industry. They have no problem saying you can come in, but we’re not going to make it easy for you. We’re not going to welcome you in. But, I’m determined to see this through because I am for the culture and I am dedicated to propelling us into any industry that I can step my foot in and bring us forward. I want to be able to do my part.
We’re rooting for you! You previously said that one of your dreams was to have Anissa Wakefield Wines distributed on airplanes. Tell us why that goal is so important to you?
I pay attention to a lot of things that I feel like we should be a part of. When I’m on the airplane and I’m looking into magazines and flipping, they have advertisements for wine and I’m like there are none of us there. Where are the Black people? We fly, we drink wine too! I want my name there. I want Anissa Wakefield Wines there. I would love to see that happen.