Oakland-based Free Range Flower Winery founders Aaliyah Nitoto and Sam Prestianni feel like they’re on the cutting edge of something. The couple makes their bottles with organic flowers, not grapes. And since the launch of Free Range Flower Winery this past summer, they often have to do a fair amount of educating of customers and convincing retailers to give their wines a try.
While many in the U.S. haven’t tasted wines made with flowers, what Free Range Flower Winery makes is far from revolutionary. There’s a long tradition of flower wines throughout history around the world. In China, wine was made from chrysanthemums during the Han Dynasty. In South Korea, wines have long been made from various blossoms like honeysuckle and peach blossoms. References to flower wines can be found in Shakespeare and Chaucer. Even Epicurious, the popular food website, has a recipe for making wine from dandelion blossoms.
When Nitoto and Prestianni launched, they started with a lavender flower wine. Now, they’re introducing the winery’s second vintage, a rose hibiscus varietal. They’ll be pouring bottles of RoseHybiscus at two upcoming events, on Nov. 23 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, and on Dec. 8 at alaMar Kitchen & Bar in Oakland.
The wines, which are made in West Oakland, are so small-batch thus far (about 15 cases per batch) that they sell out quickly at events and through the winery’s mailing list. They are also carried at a handful of local places, including alaMar and Piedmont Grocery.
Both Nitoto and Prestianni say they had grandfathers — and in Nitoto’s case, her father too — who dabbled in winemaking in their respective basements. But Nitoto, who is Free Range Flower Winery’s winemaker, also remembers trying her hand at the craft when she was about 10-years-old.
“My mom was having a party and everyone had their wine glasses, and since I couldn’t have any, I felt like I wasn’t participating,” Nitoto said.
So she attempted to make her own by mixing grape juice together with a few dashes of Tabasco. Not surprisingly, it was not considered a great success.
But that was then, and she’s come a long way since. Free Range Flower Wines are incredibly drinkable, maybe even to non-wine drinkers. The lavender wine, made with organic lavender flowers and lemons, reminded me of what champagne might taste like with a bit of Elderflower in it, as it’s sparkling but not as sparkling as champagne and seemed like it could easily replace a sparkling rose, but with more sweetness. The lavender flavor is not overpowering, and hits the back palate just at the finish, with some faint notes of citrus. Free Range’s RoseHybiscus wine, made with organic rose and hibiscus flowers and oranges, is fruitier with none of the effervescence.
Nitoto has spent most of her career working in the health and nutrition field; she currently works as a health educator primarily with seniors and women coming from prison. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Mills College, and went on to learn about herbology from there, both formally and by learning by doing.
“Once I found out about the winemaking tradition using herbs and flowers, and that it was done primarily by women, I thought, ‘Of course I can do that,’” she said.
Years ago, with a friend who was dealing with anxiety and insomnia, Nitoto set out to make her first floral wine as a remedy.
“One book I have outlines all the different ways you can cure the herbs so people can ingest them, and the winemaking method really intrigued me,” she said.
Nitoto said that she feels floral wines have not gotten the same legitimacy as grape wines because they were often made “in the backyards of the serfs or unwashed masses and therefore they weren’t legit, like the wines made by people who could own expansive plots of land with vines or orchards. They are the ones who got to decide what the cream of the crop is, as well as the definitions of what things are.”
This is why she refers to wine as “grape wine,” to insinuate that wine can be made from other matter besides grapes. Even in the U.S., she said, “garden wines” were being produced before grapes were even introduced here.
Furthermore, she said, “There are so many edible flowers in the world, and in other countries, flowers are integrated more into food than they are here.”
The couple doesn’t like to give too many specifics as to how the wine is made, but they did say that it is not so different from conventional wine-making methods and the aging time is not that long (a matter of weeks).
Free Range Flower Winery uses blossoms from local sources — they recently entered into an agreement with Oakland’s City Slicker Farms to grow for them — and they use a non-genetically modified sugar source (they won’t name what it is).
While Nitoto is the primary winemaker, Prestianni, who is a middle school teacher, and for many years, wrote music reviews for various local publications, is the one leading the marketing and offers his feedback with each batch.
“Given that we can’t have a tasting room, we have to be creative with how we get the word out,” he said. One byproduct of their business is the community that is forming around it, mostly because of its mailing list.
“We’re bringing together all these different communities, who are finding their way to us,” Prestianni said. Their events continue to draw people of all races and ages, with — at least for now — women being their main consumers.
Also in line with the women’s theme, the pair give 5% of all sales to the Alameda country chapter of Girls, Inc., an organization that empowers girls from underserved communities.
The pair hopes to make this a full-time venture, eventually. She sees her flower wines as a welcome and unique addition to Oakland’s food and wine scene.
“The demographics here are changing,” she said. “I was thinking what I can do in my toolkit of things to bring something to this community as it changes.”
It seems she’s found it with Free Range Flower Winery.