Love the smell of flowers? So does Aaliyah Nitoto, the founder of Free Range Flower Winery, who is revolutionizing the world of wine. Instead of using grapes, Nitoto creates her wine out of locally sourced, organic flowers. Offered in a variety of different flavors and blends, Free Range Flower Winery allows individuals across the country the opportunity to drink their favorite flower. The brand focuses on supporting sustainable business practices and environmentally friendly packaging as well as empowering women to use their voices to be heard. Free Range Flower Winery aims to redefine and enhance the way in which we drink wine forever. Learn more about Aaliyah’s one-of-a-kind concept and career path below.
When and why did you start your company?
“We officially launched Free Range Flower Winery in the summer of 2018. Why? Simple, I love flowers, and I love wine! Flowers have such wonderful qualities: aromatic compounds, dynamic colors, complex flavors, nutritional and healing properties. Flowers are magical and powerful. For years, through my work as an herbalist, I had learned about the history and wellness benefits of flower-based essential oils. Then I discovered these flower winemaking traditions, hundreds and even thousands of years old, from all over the world—and it was often women making these wines. This intrigued me and touched my heart. I wanted to experience these wines, so I had to make them myself!”
What has your career path been like?
“After graduating Mills College with a biology degree, I worked in biotech, then I got pretty deep into studying herbalism and nutrition, which led to working as an independent contractor with nonprofits on nutrition programs. All these interests, combined with a love of good wine and my DIY maker spirit, I guess, steered me toward flower winemaking. But being a black woman trying to break into an industry primarily inhabited by white men, and having to navigate that, was brutal.
After writing my business plan at San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, it took nearly two full years to get my winery off the ground. We had so many doors shut in our face. We had to deal with sexism, racism, even grape supremacy, if you can believe that!
There was this one guy who tried to use his presence and power as an established winemaker to get in my pants. Another led us on for months, literally up until two days before we were set to move into his warehouse space, at which point his “partner changed his mind.”
I just had to keep pushing, staying positive, and pivoting as necessary. Of course, I still do, but at least now we have such incredible support from so many different communities that I feel like anything is possible.”
Can you tell us about the process of creating wine with flowers? And what’s the alcohol level?
“I use different processes for each of my wines, and I’m (hopefully!) learning and refining my technique with each new batch, but the through-line is that the flowers are always the fundamental or foundational part of the fermentation process. The color, aroma, and dominant flavors of these wines come from their flower essences, which I capture by first steeping the flowers, then at some point in the process, with the varietals I’m working with right now, I’ll add organic lemons or oranges to the ‘juice.’
My wines are organic and vegan. I aim for minimal intervention, though sometimes I’ll fine or rack the wine for that gorgeous clarity, and other times I won’t do either of these and just let the wine express itself fully. I don’t filter the wine or add any color or flavor enhancers like I’ve heard some of the bigger commercial wineries do. I’ll often age the wine with a method we like to call florification on lees. Florification, which comes from flor, the Latin root for flower, is the flower wine equivalent of vinification, which refers to grape wine production from fruit to fermentation to bottling. Lees are the yeast and other natural elements that settle at the bottom of the tank during the fermentation process. So florification on lees is this aging technique that allows the wine to mature on the lees, without racking, until bottling. This contributes a magical complexity to the wine.
The ABV in my reds (RoseHybiscus and Rose Petal) is 14%. Lavender is 13.5%, and Marigold 12%.”
What’s the core mission of your brand?
“Free Range Flower Winery handcrafts premium flower wine in small batches from locally sourced, organic flowers—not grapes. We have three parts to our mission: 1) to lead by example, using organic ingredients, eco-conscious packaging, and sustainable business practices to produce world-class wine for the 21st century; 2) to challenge the old-school elitism associated with wine by amplifying women’s voices, inclusivity, and the real-life fun factor of pairing flower wine with #metime, friends and family, good food, and memories; 3) to build community through one-of-a-kind taste experiences, authentic customer relationships, and social responsibility (currently, we’re donating 5% of our pre-order sales to the Alameda County Community Food Bank).”
What are the most popular wines that you sell?
“‘L’ Lavender: This is the first wine I ever made. It’s my wild child, like nothing else in the whole wide world of wine. Lavender is one of my favorite flowers and herbs. I’ve always been insane about lavender. I love it. So the idea of creating a wine out of lavender flowers was too appealing not to try. ‘L’ is lightly effervescent, so it sparkles. It’s elegant and celebratory. The body feeling is so relaxing, and the floral nose pure joy.
RoseHybiscus: I wanted to make a red blend with flowers that people are excited about, that would seem most familiar to grape wine drinkers, something reminiscent of lighter reds, like maybe a Sangiovese, with a fresh fruit-forward flavor and a hint of spice. Think of a young Tempranillo with velvet tannins. Hibiscus flowers create a beautiful rich red color and an unusually complex flavor. Roses on their own are a little sharp, but they also have a warmth and roundedness that combines really well with hibiscus. It’s a luxurious experience.
Rose Petal: This second red blend was fun to make! I was working on RoseHybiscus, experimenting with different ratios of the flowers, and I came upon this ratio that’s more rose forward with the perfect amount of hibiscus to support it. The wine has an instantly recognizable floral nose, truly a bouquet of roses, and the flavors are so gorgeously balanced with this silky, warm finish that’s like, I don’t know, maybe like cuddling by the fireplace. It’s just lovely.
Marigold: I was looking at a lot of different flowers to make my first ‘white wine,’ and all the wonderful characteristics of calendula just drew me in. Marigold has all these earthy, sunny, herbal, summery qualities, and the wine really turned into something special. It’s vibrant and juicy and surprisingly full-bodied—surprisingly bright feeling—with a color that’s … pow!”
What has surprised you the most since starting your company?
“Most surprising has been how much love I get from the community of wine drinkers we’ve been able to reach. The customer loyalty and genuine excitement about my wines has just been awesome.”
What’s a lesson you’ve learned as a founder?
“You really have to have thick skin as you move through the world of entrepreneurship. You have to be tireless and persistent as you knock down doors and walls because it’s only you (or you and your loving partner, if you’re as lucky as I am!). If you want to go forward, you have to do it on your own. You have to push it. You have to believe in yourself, and you can’t let anyone or anything hold you back. I’ve learned that my brand is what I make it. The expectations I have for Free Range Flower Winery are my choice—and my responsibility. Having high expectations, and expecting excellence, helps me get exactly what I want in my brand and from myself.”