Ifeoma Clyopatra Onyia is on track to establish Laurel’s first vineyard and winery and become the first African vintner in the United States.
It will take three years for her vines to begin producing enough grapes for production, but by then, Onyia is aiming to cultivate a following with some custom blends that will become available this year.
Clyopatra Winery & Vineyard’s first custom crush, made from grapes purchased on the Eastern Shore, is already in the barrels and set for release on Oct. 1, the day her native country, Nigeria, celebrates its independence.
A new building that will house the winery’s production area, tasting room, sales area and food service should be complete by the end of August.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to own a vineyard and produce wines,” Onyia said, an idea influenced by the palm wine that her home region of Udi is known for in Nigeria. “I lost my brother, Oby, before we could travel to Italy to tour a vineyard operation and train together, so it’s my quest now. I have to do this for him.”
Laurel was a natural choice to establish the vineyard and winery, she said. “When I first came here the city welcomed me, and when my father passed away, Father Robert Buchmeier at St. Nicholas Catholic Church treated us with so much love and kindness. It never left my head.”
A lifelong serial entrepreneur, Onyia began her career in London, where she attended law school but soon decided to study business administration instead.
After opening a bridal and wedding store in England that sold African-themed gowns and accessories and winning a Keeper of Heritage award from Essence magazine, she moved to the United States in 2000.
“Fashion requires a lot of travel and I didn’t want to be away from my two children, so I opened a series of health care companies,” Onyia said, focusing on home health care, medical supplies, and a certified nursing assistant training school.
She briefly returned to fashion, launching her own brand — Clyopatra Couture — and ran Capitol Fashion Week, a biannual fashion show.
In 2020, her brother’s death brought her focus back to the health arena and she launched MISO Medical Center in South Laurel the following year, a provider of mental health services.
Since acquiring a six-acre property on Brooklyn Bridge Road in West Laurel last year, Onyia, her husband and son have planted 1.5 acres of Regent, SK-77, Chardonel, Chambourcin and Noiret vines, and plan to introduce other varieties in a nearby 3.5 acre field next year.
They have also sought out the advice of Daniel Larason, a vineyard and operations management consultant with deep roots in Maryland’s wine industry, as well as Joseph Fiola, a well-known viticulture specialist at the University of Maryland Extension, among other consultants.
Grow and Fortify, a team of agricultural professionals that supports agricultural startups, and their associated Maryland Wineries Association have also been supportive.
“They are all so eager to help new startups,” Onyia said. “I’ve found access to a nice village that I can be a member of and get information from, and they’ve welcomed me.”
When Onyia opens her winery this fall, she would like to honor her heritage by pairing her wines with chocolate from Africa.
The winery will create its own products from raw ingredients like chocolate powders and blocks, chocolate butter, and chocolate liquor imported from Ghana, and will also pair wines with nuts from Nigeria.
“I’m beginning to pair our wine with spicy foods to see which ones are better matches,” she said, with the goal of operating a kitchen on site that will feature authentic Nigerian cuisine.
“I grew up on three continents — Africa, Europe and America — so we’re going represent all of those influences in the kitchen, which will also have Caribbean food. We’ll have some special foods for tastings, and options for pairing with flights.”
To date, the operation has been 100% self-financed, and the winery is already considering options for expansion before it even opens its doors.
“If we grow and decide we need more acreage, I’m looking into opportunities to lease or purchase additional agricultural land nearby,” Onyia said.
Robert Love, director of Economic and Community Development for Laurel, said a boutique wine shop within the city limits would benefit Laurel and help promote other businesses there.
“We’d certainly like to see that,” he said. “The owner has expressed interest in this, so we’re supplying some ideas for potential locations that she can consider.”
Winemaking has been a logical step in Onyia’s career path because it encourages the social aspect of community, she said, but she also recognizes that there are still relatively few Black- and Brown-owned vineyards and wineries in the US and wants to do something to help change that.
“I think the number is about 3%,” she said. “If what I’m doing can encourage one child to believe they can start their own business despite the statistics they see, I’ll be happy. They should be encouraged to follow their passions. It’s what I do, and what my father taught me.”
Ifeoma: The first vines that Ifeoma Onyia planted are beginning to fruit, but will take up to three years to produce enough grapes for wine production. (Photo: George Berkheimer)
Vines: The first vines are getting established at Clyopatra Winery & Vineyard in West Laurel. (Photo: George Berkheimer)
Winery: Clyopatra Winery & Vineyard’s first 1.5 acre field is planted, and another 3.5 acre field will be added next year. (Photo: George Berkheimer)