Black History Month

Oakland Woman's Unusual Wine Business Beginning to Bloom

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You wouldn't figure a shipping container in West Oakland could be the ground base for a revolution in wine, but that's where Aaliyah Nitoto's making her stand, bringing to the world a line of wine -- crafted from flowers. 

Nitoto's Free Range Flower Winery boasts flavors like lavender, hibiscus,  rose and marigold -- with nary a grape in sight. 

"A lot of people, when they think wine they think grapes," Nitoto said standing in her shipping container in an industrial neighborhood in West Oakland." "The history is, it’s fruit, honey or herbs -- like flowers." 

She pulled out a plastic sack of dried rose petals and dumped them into a bowl, their perfume quickly identifiable. In another bowl, the unmistakable scent of lavender permeated the air -- imbuing the industrial container with floral notes. The wines are flavored with flowers -- and aged just like their grape-based counterparts. 

"It can take anywhere from two months to a year for the wines I have right now," Nitoto said. 

Oakland winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto pours a bowl of rose petals used to make wine at her company Free Range Flower Winery. (Feb. 19, 2021)

Nitoto came to wine-m from a circuitous route -- she is a college-educated herbalist who traced back the roots of her profession and discovered a branch leading to wine-making. 

"So I started experimenting and came up with my first formulation which was the lavender," she said. "And people loved it." 

Nitoto's dive into winemaking flowered immediately though the path wasn't an easy one. She quickly discovered a four-foot eleven-inch African-American woman making wine from flowers wasn't exactly the industry standard. She realized she would have to pummel barriers. 

She attempted to find commercial space and what's known in the wine industry as a "custom crush," which is a third party that will create the wine making to the maker's specifications. But the first site Nitoto lined-up fell through just two days before she was set to move in -- without explanation from the owner. 

"It turned out that he did have somebody move into the space," Nitoto said, "but it was somebody more like him, like a white male.

Nitoto persevered and eventually settled for a shipping container in a grungy multi-artist facility, filling her container with large tanks where she ages her batches of wine. Nitoto does most of the work herself, from washing bottles to attaching labels to moving boxes of ingredients. 

"Somebody might think that a little person," she said, "a little woman couldn’t do something like this because of how physical it is." 

Nitoto's wines are beginning to bloom in reputation -- she often sells out each batch soon after it's bottled. She's caught the attention of Phil Long, the Livermore winemaker who is head of the Association of African American Vintners, whose ranks are minuscule but growing in the nation's wine industry. 

"She is not only a young black woman getting into the wine world, which is not as diverse as it should be, but she’s also like making a new category," Long said. "She’s branding a new category that doesn’t really exist in this industry, and that’s tough by itself, but it also has its advantages because she’s very unique." 

Nitoto concedes much of her success is tied to her scrappy, tenacious spirit -- which isn't easily dissuaded by critics. 

"If I wasn’t relentless about what I wanted," she said, "I wouldn’t be here right now." 

On a recent day, Nitoto filled empty clear wine bottles with her latest batch of honey-colored marigold wine. She fought the corking machine until it surrendered to her will and injected corks into the new run of bottles. As for the immediate future, Nitoto said her growing sales meant she will be able to afford larger tanks -- and eventually outgrown her container . 

As for the bigger picture, she intends to wear down the barriers to wine made from flowers -- single-handedly raising its status. 

"Wine made like this will be ubiquitous and known all over the place," she predicted, "it won’t be something like - 'wow, what is that?'"

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