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Cheers! Meet The NASA Engineer Who Also Became Alabama’s First Certified Black Female Winemaker

A senior subject matter expert at NASA and private chef has added wine vintner to her list of accomplishments.

After taking an online course and a certified program through Cornell University, Rada Griffin started her own wine line, Anissa Wakefield Wines.

Rada Griffin selfie photo on her vineyard

Griffin’s first harvest is expected to be bottled and packaged soon, making her the first Black female winemaker in Alabama.

“There’s a movement happening with Black people getting into the wine industry,” Griffin said. “You see it with celebrities and athletes alike. I’m hoping to do my part with bringing that forward.”

Although there are more than 8,000 wineries in the U.S., about one-tenth of 1 percent of the winemakers and brand owners is Black, according to Phil Long, president of the Association of African-American Vintners.

John June Lewis Sr. is recognized as the first Black winemaker in the nation’s history. Lewis converted 10 acres of land he inherited from his father into a Virginia vineyard called Woburn Winery in 1940. Much has not changed since then.

Brown Estate, the first Black winery in America’s wine headquarters, Napa Valley, California, was only established in 1996.

Griffin said the gap is even wider for Black women. It was not until 2015, when Victoria Coleman saw her first vintage, that a Black female winemaker was recognized in Napa Valley.

While California’s flagship drink is the Cabernet Sauvignon, Alabamians are not traditionally pinching wine glasses on the weekend. Alabama’s signature drink, the Yellowhammer, better known as the Alabama Slammer, is a mixture of rum and vodka. The state also had laws that limited the growth of the winemaking Industry.

Before 2002, Alabama wineries were required to source 75 percent of their grapes from vineyards near the winery, while wineries could only be established in “wet” counties.

In May 2021, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill to allow winemakers to apply for a permit to open in a dry county and produce wine for distribution outside of the county. She also signed a bill to allow home delivery of wines in 2021.

Since the lift on agricultural restrictions in 2002, a wine trail has flourished in North Alabama, but it is unclear how many of the wineries and vineyards there are Black-owned.

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

While Griffin calls Huntsville home, she travels back and forth to Napa Valley, California where she began growing grapes in 2019. However, regional wildfires stunted her first vintage. She had to start over.

“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,” Griffin said.

However, Anissa Wakefield Wines had its first harvest in September and October, and Griffin is working on the best formula.

Griffin approaches wine the same way she approaches her work at NASA, where she is working to help put the first woman on the moon in 2024.

“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.”

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