Some of California’s most exciting wines are made without grapes – just flowers

Aaliyah Nitoto makes wine, but not from grapes.

Instead, the Oakland winemaker ferments California-grown flowers like lavender, marigold, hibiscus and rose. The finished products from his Free Range Flower Winery resemble grape wine and have a similar alcohol content, but taste like something entirely their own. (However, they don’t taste like soap or perfume.)

Nitoto is the only person making commercial flower wine in California that she knows of, and since launching her business in 2018, she has quietly amassed a clientele in the Bay Area. Its bottles can be found in wine shops big and small, from San Francisco’s Canyon Market to the national Total Wine chain. Free Range Flower even made an appearance on the NBC sitcom “Grand Crew.”

After years of running the winery on a shoestring budget – Nitoto still has a day job in healthcare – Free Range Flower is maturing. In March, Nitoto was one of 35 recipients, out of more than 12,500 applicants, of a $10,000 Sage Invest in Progress grant for black women entrepreneurs. Last fall, she opened a tasting room in Livermore, where she hosts lively evenings for wine club members. These days, she’s quick to take inventory: She had been selling her wines for months when she bottled a new batch on Saturday.

Yet as the business grows, Nitoto must explain to customers that making flower wine is not cutting-edge innovation as many assume.

Bottles of Marigold at Free Range Flower Winery in Livermore.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

“The funny thing is there are a ton of people doing this. It’s just not something formalized,” says Nitoto. People – especially women – have been making flower wine for at least 2,000 years.

Nitoto came across the idea while reading “The Way of Herbs,” a book by Michael Tierra about the health benefits of herbalism. She had been interested in wine for a long time, although her attempts to land an internship at a winery during her studies failed. A brief two-sentence passage in the book about flower wines piqued his interest.

This started her on a quest for research. “I found this whole thing about women making wine with flowers, and I fell down this rabbit hole,” Nitoto says. She read about the creations from the chrysanthemum wines made during the Han dynasty in China to the dandelion wines of colonial America.

She found a simple recipe and, in 2008, made her first batch “in a jar in my closet,” she says, with lavender. It would take a decade of craft experimentation before Nitoto officially launched his business.

Aaliyah Nitoto seals wine with a cork at Free Range Flower Winery, Saturday, June 25, 2022, in Livermore, Calif.  Nitoto is a winemaker who makes small batches from locally grown and cultivated flowers.

Aaliyah Nitoto seals wine with a cork at Free Range Flower Winery, Saturday, June 25, 2022, in Livermore, Calif. Nitoto is a winemaker who makes small batches from locally grown and cultivated flowers.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

To make its wines, Nitoto starts with flower petals – sometimes fresh, sometimes dried – and macerates them in water before starting fermentation. The flowers contain a starch that can be fermented into alcohol, but there is not enough fermentable material to yield a wine of, say, 11–14% alcohol, the range of most grape wines. She must therefore add another source of fermentable sugar. It can be actual sugar, although Nitoto also uses citrus juice, which has the added benefit of acidity.

As Nitoto buys the petals of her three main wines – marigold, lavender and rose-hibiscus – from distributors, she is also experimenting with picked flowers. She started noticing pineapple guava flowers on walks in Oakland, whose pink stamens “look like little fireworks,” she says, and ended up making a batch of wine with flowers she hand-picked from the tree in a colleague’s yard. Nitoto’s next experiment involves red clover, a flower she used to nibble on as a child in Rhode Island.

It is natural to look for familiar analogues to describe these creations. Nitoto tends to describe his marigold wine, for example, as tasting like an aged Chardonnay. But the comparisons go no further. Ultimately, these drinks defy neat categories of grape wines; they are sui generis.

A glass of Marigold from Free Range Flower Winery.  It tastes salty and grassy.

A glass of Marigold from Free Range Flower Winery. It tastes salty and grassy.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Take Marigold. The old-Chardonnay comparison is appropriate in that the wine is deep golden in color with some oxidative notes that one would expect to find in an older vintage, and a burst of citrus from the juice of lemon that Nitoto adds. Much more than Chardonnay, however, it smells of marigold, as evocative as if you were standing in a field of flowers. It is savory and herbaceous, reminiscent of thyme and sea salt. A better benchmark for grape wine might be Sherry, the Spanish fortified wine known for capturing the brackish quality of the Mediterranean Sea.

If there is an analogue for Nitoto’s RoseHybiscus, it could be a carbonic Pinot Noir. The wine is a vibrant, translucent magenta color, exploding with juicy flavors of sour cherry, cranberry and orange (another citrus addition), along with the sorts of flavors one would expect from an oak barrel, like sandalwood and vanilla, despite the wine never having touched oak. This one has a bit of tannin from the flower petals, which gives it an even more vinous taste, although the texture here is smoother, more tea-like, than Pinot Noir.

Finding a parallel for Lavender, Nitoto’s original creation — and, she admits, her favorite — is trickier. This one is lively, herbaceous, resolutely floral. It tastes of anise, juniper and the bittersweet flavor of lemon zest, all amplified by a bubbly carbonation. There’s something vermouth or amaro about lavender, with its complex botanical profile and resounding, refreshing bitterness. Those looking for the extreme vegetal flavors of hopped IPAs will also find something to like here.

Oakland winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto bottles her wine at Free Range Flower Winery in Livermore.  Instead of grapes, she ferments an unusual ingredient: flowers.

Oakland winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto bottles her wine at Free Range Flower Winery in Livermore. Instead of grapes, she ferments an unusual ingredient: flowers.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Drinkers who have never tried flower wines might wonder if they taste like some of the cloying floral foods that have become popular lately, like rosewater desserts and lavender lattes. Flowers are always pleasant to smell, but not always to taste.

Nitoto wines avoid these pitfalls. She makes sure they don’t remember your grandmother’s soap or bathroom. “You have to be very specific in how you use the flowers,” she says. She does not work with certain flowers, such as geraniums, which become too fragrant.

It’s a fine line to walk: making wines that don’t taste too flowery but still taste like flowers.

Open-air flower cellar. Tasting room open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. from Saturday to Sunday, with extended hours from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Booking is recommended. July 2-3. 2271 S. Vasco Rd., Unit BC, Livermore (inside Longevity Wines). freerangeflowerwinery.com

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley

Shirley M. Pinder