15 Minutes With Aaliyah Nitoto and Sam Prestianni, Makers of Lavender Wine
“Something as beautiful and unique as lavender wine shouldn’t just be at a country club.”
Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry
This is all just a part of Florification, the term Aaliyah created to describe her innovative wine making process, riffing off ‘vinification.’ Whereas traditional vinification relies on the natural sugars in grapes to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, Florification ages locally-sourced lavender flowers in unfiltered, pressurized unitanks with the help of organic lemons.
“We’re at the beginning of a resurgence of people making wine out of things other than grapes,” says Aaliyah. “We get to make some definitions. I took that license as a winemaker: I’m not using ‘vinification.’ I’m using lavender.”
Aaliyah’s Florification process is made even more unique by the fact it takes place in a shipping container. At first, it was a crafty way to save money, but it came with its own price: Visitors aren’t allowed on the premises without a tasting room.
In addition to running the winery, Aaliyah is a cunning scientist with a degree in biology from Oakland Mills College, working as a health and nutrition educator. Sam, too, has multiple jobs. He worked as a journalist for thirty years, writing about topics like avant garde jazz, and currently teaches arts and humanities at a middle school.
He seems very shy about this. “I mean, I used to be a journalist for thirty years. I’d be way more comfortable doing your job right now,” Sam tells me.
“He is one of the most talented middle school teachers I’ve ever met,” says Aaliyah quickly, making Sam blush.
The dynamic winemakers are both also musicians: Sam shreds it on guitar while Aaliyah jams on the washboard and plays a little ukulele. As we take our walk around Oakland’s Lake Merritt, it’s clear that they make a fine pair.
The way they met is curious, to say the least. When Sam’s apartment building of twenty-five years came under new management, the new landlord forced him out. Then, when he got out of a bad relationship, Sam signed up for OKCupid. His profile was taken down after only twelve hours; administrators flagged it because of a cartoonish image he’d uploaded. But twelve hours was enough for him to catch Aaliyah’s eye on the site. She says she was drawn to his humor.
“We met, went out, fell in love pretty fast,” says Sam. He turns to Aaliyah. “You called me from the islands—you had a moment of enlightenment where you knew you’d truly fallen in love with me, right?” He puts on a high, sing-songy voice. “Baby, I looove you!”
When Aaliyah took a trip to the Caribbean four years ago, she wanted to get away from city life to reconnect with herself. The goal was to lose herself in the majesty of nature—and that she did. The sounds, smells, and flowers Aaliyah found there excited her to her core. She returned to Oakland a new woman, captivated by the promise of a bold new dream: to commercialize the lavender wine she’d quietly been making for friends for the past eight years. It was a dream catapulted into life thanks to a book she’d been reading on the history of herbal wines, Michael Tierra’s The Ways of Herbs: Simple Remedies for Health & Healing.
“It mentioned a lavender wine and I thought, well, that sounds really good. I love lavender. That was the inspiration,” says Aaliyah. “I also found out my that my grandfather used to make wine.”
That man was Stanley Baker, and the wine was made “probably during Prohibition” in true DIY style—with elderberries from his backyard in Providence, Rhode Island. He passed away some time ago, and while Aaliyah wasn’t particularly close with him, discovering his legacy put everything into perspective for her. Winemaking suddenly felt fated, like she was simply continuing a tradition that was in her blood.
To follow that tradition, Sam encouraged Aaliyah to enroll at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a San Francisco-based agency that helps entrepreneurs launch their businesses. Neither were trust fund babies, but they managed to scrape the $20,000 they needed to get started. They sought out wineries that would partner with them on a Custom Crush agreement—an arrangement where they’d pay a royalty to use an established winery’s facilities to make their own wine.
Unfortunately, many wineries led them on; one even backed out a few days before opening. The pain of rejection was difficult to bear. “I thought, I have to really bring this. I have to do this,” said Aaliyah. “There’s no excuse. We have the winery, we have the wine . . . ”
After many months of tangled negotiations, a glint of hope finally broke through—a glint of hope named Dave, a friend who provided her with an affordable space to make her wine in. Aaliyah finally had all she needed to refine her Florification process.
Aaliyah never relented, in part, I suspect, due to her natural resilience. But part of it, too, is Sam and his love for her. He’s been her greatest believer, an endless well of undying faith. He encouraged her to finesse her business skills at the Renaissance Center and helped fund the winery’s start-up costs with some savings from his two full-time jobs, all while scrambling to learn every aspect of the wine business, from marketing to dealing with vendors.
It’s only fitting, then, that love should beget love. Part of what makes Free Range Flower Winery so special is Sam and Aaliyah’s desire to give back to their community. Giving back is how they combat gentrification in an area like Oakland, a place where a new winery might seem callous, insensitive to the cultural landscape.
“We want our message to be positivity,” says Sam. “We’re connecting to ancient traditions and innovating. We’re those DIY makers, doing everything by hand we hope people appreciate—and they seem to.”
Five percent of proceeds from their ‘L’ lavender wine go towards Girls, Inc., a non-profit geared towards empowering young women. They hope to replicate this model, pairing each new drink with a charitable organization. Their latest release, a rose hibiscus wine (“It’s like a spicy tempranillo!” says Aaliyah), is attached to City Slicker Farms, a group that builds vegetable gardens in urban areas.
“It’s my way of connecting with the community even though I run a capitalistic business,” says Aaliyah.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a desire to create something to nourish the soul should incite so much joy. They launched in July 2018 and the community’s positive response has continued to surprise and humble them ever since.
“Who knew lavender wine could be so satisfying!” says one Yelp review. “I got a taste at the launch party and couldn’t leave without buying a bottle. I drink a lot of wine and I’ve never experienced another like their lavender wine!” Another customer on the winery’s testimonials page says, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had, honestly.”
“I want people to give these kinds of wines a chance,” says Aaliyah.“There are so many options that could be out there that aren’t because people have fixed expectations of wine should be.”
Aaliyah’s creations are an extension of that ancient desire to heal, to continue bringing joy to the community through nature. By daring to bring such an unconventional product to market, Aaliyah pays patronage to the female winemakers of days past, the women who originally inspired her to pursue her dream.
“Something as beautiful and unique as the wine Aaliyah has made shouldn’t just be at a country club,” says Sam, impassioned as ever. “People need to have access to it. They need to try it and enjoy it. We don’t have a tasting room, we don’t have a lot of money. We can’t go the normal route. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been going it this way, because there’s no other way.”
“When he gets overwhelmed I tell him, ‘No excuses! You chose this life,’” says Aaliyah.
“That’s what my dad told me, yup,” replies Sam. “It’s tough, but it’s freedom.”
Hi there! My name is Janelle and I'm a creative writer and storyteller based in Portland, OR. I have a BA in English from UC Berkeley and write about a whole lot of things but focus on food, travel and incredible people. You can catch my work in publications like Thrillist, VICE and Eater, with my portfolio available at https://lassalleworks.com/writings. I'm also working on writing my first screenplay, so expect to see my name on the silver screen sometime soon ;)