By Joe Murchison
Laurel’s first vineyard and winery is taking shape in West Laurel, and the owner claims that it will be the first African-owned winery in the United States.
Ifeoma Clyopatra Onyia, who grew up in Nigeria, purchased a six-acre property on Brooklyn Bridge Road last year and planted 1,500 grape seedlings two months ago. A winery building for processing, storing – and tasting! – wine is to be constructed this summer. She, her husband and an adult son are living in the large house on the property.
Although her own plants won’t be mature enough to produce usable wine grapes for two or three years, Onyia plans to purchase grapes from a vineyard on the Eastern Shore to produce her first bottles of red, white and rosé blends ready for sale by Nigerian Independence Day, Oct. 1.
Daniel Larason, a Maryland viticultural expert whom Onyia has hired as a consultant, thinks the five varieties of grapes in the vineyard have a good chance for commercial success. The Regent, SK-77, Chardonell, Chambomcin and Noret grapes “are a little off the beaten path, but they make great wine,” he said. He also likes the site of the vineyard, on a hill with rocky soil. “Grapes like a little bit of a challenge,” he said, as the rocks force the plants to push their roots deep and become hardier. The plants also don’t like “wet feet,” and the slope of the hill will carry off excess water, Larason said.
Onyia’s and Larason’s plans have received the necessary approvals from the Prince George’s Soil Conservation District. The land was already zoned for agricultural uses.
Onyia has named her operation Clyopatra Winery and Vineyard, borrowing from her middle name. The vineyard is the seventh in Prince George’s County and one of more than 100 in the state.
Onyia said she’s dreamed of becoming a wine producer since childhood, when she first sampled a Nigerian drink called palm wine that came from the milky-white sap of certain palm trees.
“You finished a glass and tried to get up — woo. … It was very potent and really good.”
She used to gaze down the slope of a hill at a farm her father owned and ask him why he didn’t plant a vineyard on the slope. “He would laugh and say, ‘Baby, you’re going to do this for me.’” As an adult, she visited her brother, who settled in Italy, and admired the vineyards.
But she put her dream on hold, instead launching other businesses.
She grew up in what she described as a “loving, crazy” family with seven siblings in Enugu, a city in southeastern Nigeria. Her father was an engineer with the Nigerian Coal Corporation; her mother was a businesswoman who sold fabrics and dried fish.
Onyia has been an entrepreneur since her college days in London. During a trip to Italy to visit her brother, she bought clothes and brought them back to sell to schoolmates. She then started shipping British clothing to her family in Nigeria, who would sell them. She partnered with Argos, a retailer in the United Kingdom, and opened a store in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital. Then she opened a bridal business in England, selling African-themed gowns and accessories through bridal shows. By the late 1990s, she had been featured in Essence magazine and honored by the House of Lords.
Business was great, but Onyia’s marriage was not. When it ended, in 2000, she decided to make a new start in the United States, bringing her 3-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son and about $10,000. After a few weeks staying with a friend in Virginia, she and her kids moved to Laurel. The family moved to Bowie three years later.
While in Laurel, “I decided to open up a health care agency,” she said. Through MISS Health Care (a mix of the first initials of her name, her children’s names and the word “savior”), Onyia provided home health care and medical supplies, and even a school for training certified nursing assistants. She expanded the company to three locations — Beltsville, Hagerstown and on the Eastern Shore — and had more than 100 employees at one point.
But again, Onyia’s personal life didn’t match her business success. In 2012 she lost a close brother to cancer, and a friend who had acted as a surrogate mother to her after she moved to the U.S. also died. “That threw me for a loop,” she said. “I just mentally wasn’t capable of running the business. … I wasn’t in the right state to love my patients.”
Despite being depressed, Onyia hung on to her business for four years, until 2016, when she closed shop. But her entrepreneurial drive was alive and kicking, and she launched Clyopatra Couture, a retailer of high-fashion clothes that she designs. Onyia has a number of celebrity clients including, she said, “some NBA mothers,” and the online business is doing well.
In 2014, Onyia married Chidi Onukwugha, a fellow Nigerian and lawyer whose business and corporate practice is based in Laurel.
Onyia lost another brother In 2020. Shortly before he died, he told her that she should return to health care. Onyia took her brother’s advice, but decided to shift her focus from home health care to mental health. In 2021, she launched MISO Medical Center, on Cherry Lane Court. The center provides counseling, medication management and a number of other mental health services. Onyia currently employs more than 20 psychiatrists, psychologists and case managers.
Even as her high fashion and health-care businesses kept her busy, Onyia dreamed of having her own vineyard and started scouting for property. After looking at dozens of sites in Prince George’s County, she drove up a long, steep driveway off Brooklyn Bridge Road. The large sloping field that served as a front yard and the imposing home at the top of the hill caught her attention. “This reminds me of California,” she thought. “This is going to work.”