Woman in sleeveless dress reaches up to pick fig from a tree in a sunny backyard.
Aaliyah Nitoto picks figs in her backyard. Credit: Brandy Collins

When Aaliyah Nitoto was in college she took some pre-med courses. It was there she began to learn about some of the medicinal benefits of plants.

“The thing that drew me to medicine is health and the thing I realized about the medical industry, especially when I was in college, was not about health,” she said.

Free Range Flower Winery Tasting room open Saturday, noon-6 p.m., Sunday, noon-5 p.m., 2271 S Vasco Rd Unit B – C; Livermore CA 94550. Free anniversary event Saturday Aug. 12 includes live music, guided tastings, flower-wine cocktails, tasting room-only bottle specials, and chocolate-wine pairings. Reservations recommended, online or call 510-547-7173 and leave a message with number in party and ETA.

She decided to pivot towards studying herbalism and nutrition and, eventually, became a nutrition consultant. Fast forward to today, and Nitoto is celebrating the fifth anniversary of her Free Range Flower Winery, one of just a handful of Black-owned, woman-owned wineries in the country, and one whose wines are made using citrus and edible plants such as pineapple guava flowers, red clover and marigold — with no grapes in sight.

“When I was starting this, everybody was looking at me like I was crazy and nobody thought a Black woman from Oakland who was working as a nutrition consultant could decide to make wine,” she said.

The winery is holding a series of anniversary celebrations this summer. Last month, Black Vines, a festival, now in its 12th year, that highlights wine from Black makers, hosted a party at alaMar Dominican Kitchen, and tomorrow, from noon to 6 p.m., Free Range Flower Winery is inviting the public to a special event at its new tasting room in Livermore, with a musical performance by Honey Gold Jasmine.

Nitoto did start her wine journey by taking a traditional approach. “Initially I wanted to get into making wine with grapes,” she said, “but it didn’t work out.” The truth was that she had become fascinated with the history of women who made wines from edible plants such as lavender, hibiscus and rose, and there was no going back. “What really made me want to do it is finding out a little bit of history and that this was a really dope thing that women were doing that nobody knows about.”

Free Range Flower Winery ines (l to r): “L” Lavender Sparkling Wine, also far right, Marigold and RoseHybiscus. Credit: Ben Kist

Nitoto points out that wine made with flowers rather than grapes was historically the norm for those from the lower and middle classes. She wants to bring that tradition back to the forefront of wine. “I’m going to forge my own way,” she said. Nitoto was intentional in staking her claim, calling herself a radical feminist for creating wine with unconventional ingredients.

She started with lavender.

Sparkling Lavender, named “L”, was Free Range Flower Winery’s first wine, created in 2018. With a distinctive savoriness, the wine has undertones of citrus and the aromatic strength of lavender, and is designed for sipping. “I’m so obsessed with lavender,” said Nitoto. “It has a lot of flavors and it’s just really neat.”

To create the wines, the flowers are macerated or softened by soaking them in purified water, drained and then taken through the fermentation process using citrus such as orange and lemon. The wine is not barrel-aged because Nitoto doesn’t want the flavor or process to be tarnished by the barrels.

Winery launched in a shipping container

Nitoto launched her winery in 2018 out of a 320-square-foot shipping container in West Oakland. But it was soon apparent she would need more space. “I was growing out of my shipping container and laws and public works were changing in a way that was going to be more difficult for me to do what I wanted to where I was,” she said.

In 2022, Nioto found a home to produce the wine in Livermore partnering with Longevity Wines. The previous year, her “L” lavender wine was named 2021 Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Best Sustainable White Wine.” In the years since her launch, Nitoto has expanded her relationships, meeting other vintners and winemakers at the Association of African American Vintners.

“I want women to understand that throughout history, we’ve been gaslit,” said Nitoto. “There’s been a lot of times where we’ve done things that are amazing and they’re not talked about.” Nitoto said she has encountered some challenges in her five-year startup journey, including sexism and failed business partnerships. But most of the winemakers she’s met have been supportive. Free Range has been a vendor at and been offered promotion by Black Vines.

Wines made with roses, marigolds, hibiscus

Sam Prestianni and Aaliyah Nitoto of Oakland’s Free Range Flower Winery. Credit: Alix Wall

Free Range’s selection has grown to include the Marigold white, Rose Petal red Wine, and RoseHybiscus red wine. Each wine is unique, and wine lovers will experience them in different ways, according to Nitoto. “Everybody’s palette is like a fingerprint,” said Nitoto. “Your experience with food might be completely different and that could actually change the way [the wine] expresses to you.”

The Marigold, a light summery white best served chilled, brings the lemon forward. The ruby-colored RoseHybiscus has notes of cherry, raspberry and white pepper which heightens the spiciness of the rose. While both Rose Petal and RoseHybiscus are similar with hints of white pepper, RoseHybiscus is dryer and has a 75% hibiscus-25% roses ratio. Rose Petal is a rosé wine with 25% hibiscus and 75% roses.

As for the next five years, Nitoto has ambitious goals for Free Range Flower Winery. “I want to make these wines ubiquitous,” she said. “I want people across the country to know that you can drink flowers, and I want people to know that women were instrumental throughout the history of alcoholic beverages.”

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.