Above: “L” Lavender Wine / Image: Free Range Flower Winery
Aaliyah Nitoto always had a passion for wine.
But it wasn’t until the trained biologist got denied from several winery jobs that she began researching the craft. She bought a couple of books about herbalism, learned all about making wine from flowers, fell in love with the technique, and contemplated opening her own business.
“I was like that’s really interesting, I want to do that,” Nitoto said.
In 2018, Nitoto and partner Sam Prestianni opened Free Range Flower Winery, an organic, sustainable, and local winery based in Oakland, offering small-batch, handcrafted flower wine with unique flavors and scents.
Whereas typical wines feature grapes as the main ingredient, Free Range Flower Winery products are flower-based. There are thousands of flowers worldwide, Nitoto says, all with different essences and homeopathic attributes that can be used for medicine.
Flower winemaking, in general, is a centuries-old tradition that’s been utilized in countries and empires including Ancient Egypt, China, and Europe. One book that drew Nitoto to the craft dates back to the 1800s.
“They’re really amazing, rose and lavender have really high vibrations for well-being,” says Nitoto of some of the benefits of flowers.
But the road to success wasn’t always easy. Even today, Nitoto’s one of the sole female winery owners and one of just a few African American owners in a white male-dominated industry.
“I think being an African American and a woman had something to do with it,” Nitoto says.
By 2014, Nitoto met her supportive partner Prestianni and wrote a business plan at the Renaissance Entrepreneur Center in 2015, where she got an award for the most innovative plan.
Despite working off a small budget and a lot of slammed doors in the face, she found someone with a warehouse offering a ten-foot shipping container. Just a short time later, Nitoto and Prestianni got their federal, local, and state licenses and in 2018 they were up and running.
“It’s not the most convenient place to be in but it’s the most convenient place for us,” Nitoto says of the space. “It’s what we can afford.”
One of Nitoto’s first wines was a floral lavender, a product that’s still an all-time customer favorite. Depending on the time of year, rose petal and the rose hibiscus flavors are in high demand, as is the marigold variation – which takes about a year to make.
The process is no easy feat, especially when working in a small space. On a given day, Nitoto has dozens of bruises all over her arms and legs from climbing over and moving equipment within the compact area.
While some wineries offer tasting sessions, Free Range Flower Winery relies predominantly on wine festivals—where they interact with community members and create connections—to share their products.
Amid the pandemic, the company lost a couple of accounts given the closures of festivals, fairs, and other events.
But Nitoto and Prestianni are getting creative, utilizing Instagram to connect with people while offering pre-order and local delivery options. When they go out on delivery, the pair will make it an event by taking selfies and interacting with customers.
While the shipping container does its job, for the time being, Nitoto hopes to open a tasting room in the future. A wine tasting room will create yet another platform where Nitoto can interact with customers – something she has always enjoyed about the job.
“I love making wine and I love seeing how people react to the wine.”
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