Aaliyah Nitoto - Founder, Owner & CEO of Free Range Flower Winery
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I launched Free Range Flower Winery three years ago. I studied biology at Mills College, then herbalism and nutrition education. I’ve worked with various biotech companies and nonprofits. I still work part-time with Healthy Black Families, an advocacy and education nonprofit in Berkeley, while I’m working on taking Free Range Flower Winery to the next level as founder, winemaker, and CEO.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
As an herbalist, I studied many ways to use flowers, from skincare to holistic health. When I came across the tradition of herbal and flower winemaking, I was curious to learn more. I’ve always loved wine, and I even explored winery internships back in college, but they never even gave me an interview. When I realized I could make wine on my own, I jumped at the chance.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
As I recently told HuffPost, my wine bringing joy to others means everything. When customers take the time to tell me how they love the wine as much as I do, and that they’ve shared my flower wine with friends and family who also love it, that just gives me chills, and even makes me tear up sometimes.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry?
There are so many, and I’ve talked about them a lot. Right now, I prefer looking toward the future, staying positive, and doing what I can to ensure that these things don’t happen to others. I’m inspired by and have great respect for organizations like Main Street Launch, Lift Collective, the Hue Society, the Roots Fund, Wine Unify, the Association of African American Vintners, Ladies Who Launch, and so many other groups on the front lines of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by advocating for diversity and inclusion?
More voices in the mix equals a wider range of aesthetics equals more ideas equals innovation equals enriching and inspiring experiences for everyone equals greater empowerment for those of us who have long been marginalized equals community uplift PERIOD.
What changes do you hope to see in the wine industry in the next five years?
I would like to see dozens or hundreds of independent, non-grape, winemaker-led wineries that produce premium wines in the marketplace. And I would like to see the industry, including competitions and Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, etc., open up their wine reviews to a wider range of categories that reflect all the innovation happening in winemaking today.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equality to me means participating in a tasting event or wine festival and not feeling like I’m the only person of color or feeling ridiculously excited to see another brown face in the room. I want to go to wine conferences and not be one of only a handful of women or POC on the panels or in the audience. As a woman, I want to be able to feel safe in my body. I don’t want my participation as a winemaker in the industry to be sexualized or diminished by others. And if I don’t ever have to see another wine industry webinar that only includes men…
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I try to lead by example, both by being a Black woman winery founder -- who actually makes her own wine with her own calloused hands -- and by making sure that women and POC are an integral part of my winemaking team. Representation matters.
What message do you have for anyone now entering the wine profession?
In terms of winemakers or aspiring winery founders, I would say… 1) Make sure you have a thorough business plan and understand the regulatory frameworks before you even think about getting into this business. 2) Have a real clear understanding of what your products are and how you make them. 3) Be real with your expectations: start with small production, focus on quality and world-class customer service, scale organically, don’t sit on inventory, and know that it will be a bumpy ride (there will always be problems to solve). 4) Learn by networking with as many good people in the industry as you can; relationship-building is key, and there are so many folks out here who will have your back. 5) Don’t let anything stand in your way.
What other industry heroes do you admire and why?
There are so many… briefly, Phil Long at Longevity Wines for his incredible mentorship and showing me that there is a path for a small winery to get to the national level. Tahiirah Habibi of the Hue Society for being unapologetically herself: a Black, powerful supersomm who cares about uplifting others. McBride Sisters, Robin and Andrea, for creating a wine brand that’s elegant, playful, and culturally relevant.