The Fizz #37: Free Range Flower Winery's Aaliyah Nitoto is expanding the category with wines made from flowers
Winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto is making wine from organic flowers, and asking us to look back into the history of flower wines.
For the 37th issue of The Fizz, I got together with Free Range Flower Winery winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto. Aaliyah started FRFW just over three years ago, coming to wine from an herbalist background. She works with organic (and sometimes wild-picked) flowers, focuses on sustainability in the winery, and is committed to letting the flower shine. Aaliyah radiates warmth and is incredibly connected to her mission, and I’m happy to have had some time to talk with her about flower wine.
In this interview, we speak about what it means to make wine from flowers, how she started in the industry, and where she finds her joy. We also talk about the difference between representation and parity, and how she deals with people who try to block her way, and don’t think of flower wine as “wine”.
Margot: I'm really excited to learn a bit more about your wine. I’m familiar with the fermentation of fruit into wine, but I don’t know how it works in terms of flowers. Can you give me some insight there?
Aaliyah: With flowers, you start the process from fresh flowers or dry flowers—you would choose your method depending on the flower type you use, how hardy the aromatics and other compounds in the flowers are, how volatile they are. I sometimes take boiling water and pour it into the flowers, or take fresh flowers that are really delicate and macerate or crush them pretty well, pour them into cool water, and let them sit. That's a process that would help to maintain some of those elements of the wine that I don’t want destroyed by either drying the flowers or heating them in any way. Once I get those essences, I add a sugar source—you can use any type of sugar source, which could be honey or any kind of sugar—I use a proprietary blend of all organic, non-GMO, fair trade sugar. You can then add yeast to that and it goes through the process, just like it would in any other wine where the yeast eat the sugars, they produce alcohol and, you can get wine from that. That’s the basics of it. Depending on the flowers, it would be a little different.
Margot: Okay, so for the more delicate ones, you do a cold essence, and then for the more hardy flowers, you go with the boiling water.
Aaliyah: Yeah—some may be thicker or might be tougher or the aromatics may be more delicate, like, for example, an actual really famous flower wine is dandelion wine. A lot of people think that’s just a metaphor, but it's an actual wine that’s hundreds of years old that actually uses fresh flowers. So is elderflower wine, which is another one that's really popular still in Europe. Those are two that I haven't done yet because I haven't gotten the flowers in the volume I want. I did try passionflower—it’s really hard to get fresh passionflower at a large volume, but it's really easy to get them dried, but I knew what the taste of fresh passionflowers are and they're amazing, and dried passion flowers have absolutely none of those characteristics.
Margot: That's really interesting about the history of flower based wine making. What inspires you about that history or where did you learn about it?
Aaliyah: Well, I had to just pull it from a lot of different sources. It's not something that you can find easily. A lot of people haven't heard of wines made this way and it's because they're kind of relegated to the kind of backend of history. At the very least, they came up at the same time as grape wines. Flower wine history dates back to Egypt and Greece and Rome, where like grape winemakers actually added herbs, like lavender to their wines to enhance the vitality. The oldest flower wines that have been recorded have been found in China and Korea with chrysanthemum wine. There’s wine from China made with honeysuckle and peach and azalea blossoms that I'd love to get my hands on. They've been around, but you have to dig through history and find them.
[I did my best to find as much as I could about flower wine on the web, and it was hard to do. If anyone has seen references about flower wine in history, please send them my way. Chrysanthemum wine was made starting in 247-195 BC in China, and was (and still is) drunk during The Double Ninth Festival. It was aged for one year, and was said to have health benefits. Learn more about it here and here. Korea has a deep history with flower wine—dugyeonju, made with azalea flowers, and baekhwaju, a wine usually enjoyed at weddings, is traditionally infused with herbs and 100 different kinds of dried flowers.]
Aaliyah: In the United States, for example, the indigenous grapes were not considered wine worthy for the most part. So most of the wine was imported from Europe. People who couldn't afford to import or drink imported wine were making wine with dandelions, which they brought over from Europe. They were actually making those wines here.
Ray Bradbury's book Dandelion Wine—it’s a story about a boy who was going through a summer of change. He's learning about loss, losing a friend who moves away, his grandfather dies and things like that. He kind of learns about things changing over time and not being the same anymore. The whole idea of this dandelion wine is that in the spring you make this wine and, with the flowers of youth, and then in the winter, when spring has gone, you can sip the wine and remember that summer.
I read it in my teens and I've read it several times since then. People that I know who've read it, they thought that must be a metaphor, but no, it’s an actual wine, and it was one of the first wines here. It stayed around, but once grapes were established here, they became the gold standard and all that other “stuff” got put to the side. But people still do make it.
Margot: Wow, that's fascinating and so inspiring. I read in one of your past interviews that you had worked as an herbalist. How does that history feed into your winemaking?
Aaliyah: It's one of the reasons why I'm a winemaker. Absolutely. I've always loved wine and I've always been fascinated with it and wanted to learn how to make it. I attempted to get internships in Napa Valley while I was in college and it didn't work out, and I figured it wasn't for me. I ended up going into herbalism, which I really loved. One of the things that you learn when you become an herbalist is that there's so many different things that you can do with herbs.
Of course, you can make skin creams, you can make remedies, you can make all kinds of things like that. Then there's all of the ways that you can administer them. In my research, I found winemaking and that is how that happened. That was something that I was really interested in and I really wanted to try to do that. It was a really simple sketch of how you would do it—I just experimented at home and went to my favorite store for herbs and grabbed some lavender, which is my favorite and started experimenting and eventually came up with a formulation that is my lavender wine now.
Margot: That’s awesome. How do you know which flower grower to work with?
Aaliyah: One of the things I do is try the flowers. I get the flowers and experiment with them. I make the teas ahead of time to see how they'll react. When I started making the lavender, I tried five or six different varietals from five or six different places before I decided on where I wanted to get them from. They have to be certified organic.
I'm a really young winery and I'm a really tiny winery. When I started the winery, I was making three or five gallon carboys of wine. [laughs] I haven’t had the ability to do a lot of the due diligence that like another winery might do, but it's something that I I'm doing more and more. For example, with my latest formulation, feijoa, which is a pineapple guava wine.
Margot: Wow, that sounds delicious!
Aaliyah: Yeah! Pineapple guava flour wine. It's not organic, but it is wildcrafted. I pick them with my hands, in several different areas. You're not seeing these in the grocery store or anything like that. I actually go around and inspect trees owned by people I know, to inspect the quality of the flowers. I look at things like where they are in relationships to roads and other things that may cause pollution to get them as clean as possible. Because these are people that I have relationships with, I know they don't use pesticides or anything like that. They're a really wonderful flower. They're actually one that I have to be really careful with and I have to do fresh.
Margot: Why is that?
Aaliyah: There's these really amazing flavors that remind me of—do you remember, no Twizzlers, but the other strawberry licorice?
Margot: Red Vines?
Aaliyah: Exactly, it reminds me of that—not sweet, but tangy. It loses that when you dry it.
Margot: Gotcha. How big is your operation today?
Aaliyah: I think up to now, we’ve made probably about 800 cases of wine. It's been exponential. The winery has been around for a little over three years now. To go from a really really small production that we had in the beginning to now is kind of mind blowing to me. We're in the process of moving into a bigger facility, finally going from a 320 square foot shipping container to a shared space where there’s a total of maybe about 2000 square feet that we can use for ourselves in a 4,000 square foot facility. It's going to be really great. We’re in the process of getting that space, so I still need more tanks. We need more equipment and we need to ramp it up quickly because we have to to have everything be cost-effective and actually try to really make it work there. I'm hoping to like, at least triple our production for next year. That’s where we’re going.
Margot: Wow. Congratulations. As you grow, you're going to need more flowers, right? What is the volume of flowers that you take in to make a case of wine?
Aaliyah: I’d love to keep that to myself. It’s funny—now, there's a lot of makers that are saying, how do you make that? How do you do that? I know brewers or people who've tried to put lavender in their wine in the fermentation stage. I really don't want to tell you about too much about it because I’d like to just stay on the forefront at least for now. My goal eventually is to eventually be there to help usher in more wineries like me, but we are super duper, ultra small and this is something that's kind of the bleeding edge right now. There are people are out there that do make these wines, but not in the way we're doing them. So I'd like to just keep it to myself until the business is really established.
Margot: That's completely fair, I totally understand. We ask for a lot of explanation from our winemakers today. It completely makes sense that you’d want to keep the details close by right now. There are a couple of winemakers up here in Maine that are making wine from wild blueberries, which is really great. What can be tricky for them is that people don't really see fruit wines as wine in the same way and think any more than one kind of wild blueberry wine is excessive. How do you find the market responding to your wine?
Aaliyah: Right now we are getting a lot of love, a lot of respect, a lot of acceptance. It takes a lot of tenacity. But also, don't let them do that. It's just like, as a woman, when they say, oh we only need one woman representing in this office, we don't need any more than that—or we only need representation of people of color or LGBTQ people. Representation that doesn't make any sense. We need parity. The same thing is true with any kind of product that we're putting out on the market.
In the beginning I had some people saying “what is this? Wine is made from grapes!”. I have had people say that wine made this way isn't wine. The opinion of people in this country over the last hundred-odd years to try to get rid of this category doesn't stand up to the history of winemaking, which is thousands of years old, which does call this wine. Mead, which is a wine, which a lot of people try to relegate into a beer category, but it's actually a wine, was the first wine ever created, and other garden wine like wines made from fruits—blueberries or strawberries or peaches and things like that. They're ghetto-ized, corralled and made into novelty things rather than something that is good in its own right. You just can't let them do that. When people bring up arguments like that, and they're combative, I don't even engage. I just continue the way I am and keep telling my story and telling the story of the wines.
These wines were primarily made by people who were middle to lower income, and they're primarily made by women. That can tell you right there why they were relegated to obscurity. The people who owned tracks of lands that had money and influence and got to name things like “noble grapes”, they got to say what was wine and what wasn’t. Even today, we were talking in the beginning about the native grapes here in the United States that “won’t worthy of winemaking”, people are making wine with them now!
Margot: And they're excellent wines!
Aaliyah: Exactly. I am just living my life and doing what I'm passionate about. In the beginning of this process, trying to sell these wines at bottle shops, people would say oh it tastes good, but maybe you shouldn’t call it wine. The thing that makes this wine is the process. In European dictionaries, I found definitions of wine and it says made with flowers, herbs, grapes, and honey. These are definitions much older than the ones in the United States.
[The New International Encyclopaedia describes wine as “Specifically, fermented grape juice. By extension, fermented juice of other fruits or plants, the name of the fruit always preceding the term e.g. currant wine, rhubarb wine, elderflower wine”. You can make wine from many different kinds of flowers. From homestead.org: “Apple blossoms, apricot petals, violets, dandelions, rose petals, pansies, primrose, nasturtiums, marigold, red hibiscus flowers, honeysuckle, daisies, lilacs, lavender, buttercups, cornflower, clover, cowslip, chamomile, and calendula: the list of flowers that make a fine wine is seemingly endless. A flavorful, palette-pleasing wine can be crafted from any edible flower.”]
Margot: Where do you find the joy in what you do?
Aaliyah: I find joy in finishing a batch of wine—they're always a little different. When people taste them and love them, that really kind of takes my breath away. Picking myself up, brushing myself off when I fall and keep moving forward. The fact that I'm getting somewhere, I am achieving what I'm setting out to do. In the beginning, there were a lot of folks who wouldn't even consider the idea that I had in my head. They thought oh lavender wine will taste like soap, you know, that sort of thing. Now people tell me that they’ve heard so much about it and they have to try it. That does give me joy. One of these days I'm going to look back and I'm going to say, wow, that's really cool, and there are going to be a lot of other people who are out there who are making it.
Diversity is awesome. Biologists say diversity makes a healthy ecosystem and that's not just diversity in the wild, it's diversity across the board and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to have diversity.
Margot: Well, thank you so much for telling me your story. I can’t wait to share a glass with you someday!
You can support Aaliyah and Free Range Flower Winery by buying her wines! Check out her shop page and sign up for the wine club to try a range of flower wines. Follow Free Range Flower Winery on Instagram here. FRFW is currently donating 5% of sales of new RoseHybiscus and Marigold wines to Alameda County Community Food Bank to uplift kids with access to nutritious food, literacy programs, and safe places to play. Learn more about this important organization here.
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