Aaliyah Nitoto

Negative talk while starting a business can hamper your momentum, which makes everything harder. Being positive doesn’t necessarily make anything easier, but it does give you more energy and clarity to get things done.


Aaliyah Nitoto is the founder, CEO, and winemaker of Free Range Flower Winery, an award-winning, boutique winery located in Oakland, California, that handcrafts wine in small batches from locally sourced, organic flowers–not grapes. Drawing from her lifelong studies of biology, herbalism, and nutrition, Aaliyah combines her knowledge of flowers and plants, taste profiles, and science into the art of flower winemaking. Her process marries the garden winemaking traditions of women from centuries past with the innovative spirit of today’s San Francisco Bay Area food and drink culture. Dedicated to sustainable practices that yield world-class wine and build community, Free Range Flower Winery welcomes partnerships with local farmers, makers, artists, mixologists, event planners, and community-minded organizations.

Where did the idea for Free Range Flower Winery come from?

While I was studying biology and herbalism, I came across this little-known, incredibly rich history of winemaking that didn’t involve grapes yet spanned hundreds of years and countless varietals. I was fascinated by these so-called garden wines, which were handcrafted from flowers and an endless assortment of non-grape fruits, vegetables, and herbs. I was also inspired by the fact that the winemakers were also predominantly women.

I started making lavender wine, just for myself and a few friends, who loved it so much, they encouraged me to take it to the next level. So I researched the market and found that flower wines were extraordinarily underrepresented, especially in the United States. It was then that I decided to make it my goal to reintroduce these wonderful wines—with 21st century updates, of course—to the community.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Free Range Flower Winery is a very small operation, which means I have to wear almost all the hats all the time. Managing every aspect of the winemaking is primary. From sourcing organic ingredients to maintaining equipment to monitoring fermentation processes to experimenting with new wines… just this alone could be a full-time job. Then there’s the bottling, labeling, and packaging, shipping all over California, making personal deliveries to local retailers and consumers, digging into market research, going on sales calls, developing community partnerships, planning and running special events, appearing at festivals, focusing on authentic customer service, brand development, and fun marketing campaigns, social media, label design, and web site design, keeping the books in order, staying on top of all the regulations and government filings, accounting, on and on and on. Every day is different, which can be exciting and enriching. But there’s never enough time to do everything I want or feel like I need to do. That’s the tough part. To maximize productivity, I start the day by prioritizing my daily checklist, then I begin the slow march to getting as much done as possible, crossing off tasks as I go and adding new ones as they come up. They always do.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When I get an idea for a new wine, the first thing I do is make a preliminary formulation, like a road map. After that I create a small batch to ferment and age. Based on the finished product, I can envision various adjustments and propose improvements. Then I start other experimental batches based on these new possibilities. Once the formulation is perfect, I can scale it up.

What’s one trend that excites you?

People seem like they’re more adventurous than in years past. They’re more willing to try new things, especially when it comes to food and drink. They’re enticed by novel taste experiences. We’re seeing this first-hand, as many people from a range of demographics are finding their way to wine made from flowers—not grapes.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I group tasks. When I don’t have to switch back and forth between unrelated tasks, everything goes much more efficiently. If I’m working on the winemaking, I stay in the winery. If I have to focus on marketing or sales calls, I commit my time to the office. I usually ship once a week, so I can batch orders. That sort of thing.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Really find a way to meditate and keep it up. Believe it or not, most of the stress you have is self-inflicted.

Don’t be disappointed about not fitting in in the corporate work environment. You don’t have to. You need to be an entrepreneur. You need to do for yourself. Don’t be afraid, just get out there!

Also, go to a state college. You’ll have less debt.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Negative talk has a toxic effect on the mind, body, and overall wellbeing.

Negative talk while starting a business can hamper your momentum, which makes everything harder. Being positive doesn’t necessarily make anything easier, but it does give you more energy and clarity to get things done.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Meditate. It helps bring you back to earth when things seem out of control. At the very least, stop, and take three deep breaths.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Networking, community-building, and developing relationships have all been key for growing my business. Since I have a product that’s unfamiliar to most people, it’s important to create educational opportunities for them. I’m always looking for a chance to talk about my wine, and if possible, to let folks sample it. When most people better understand what they’re tasting, they love it even more.

Since I don’t have a tasting room, I have developed partnerships with other local businesses to curate unique social experiences for people to sample the wine. This has also been a great way to build community engagement.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early on, I had an agreement with another winemaker to share his production space to manufacture my wine. Two days before we were to move the equipment in and start production, he pulled out. I had designated a considerable amount of our startup capital toward buying equipment to fit this particular space. When this guy bailed on us, I was left with a lot less capital and nowhere to make my wine.

I made a pact with myself. I would only mourn this lost opportunity for a set time, then I would keep pushing forward.

It was important for me to process my feelings, and creating a clearly defined time for disappointment made it easier to put it behind me. You could be missing that big break while wallowing in self-pity. I wasn’t going to let that happen. And pretty soon, I got the break I was looking for.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Sheets for dog beds are a great business idea. Dog owners spend a considerable amount of money on their furry friends. But, let’s face it, they are messy animals. Cleaning dog beds are hard, because they are bulky and don’t fit most home washers. They need to be taken to the neighborhood laundromat—if you wash them at all. Fitted sheets for a dog’s bed can be taken off and washed with ease. They also can be changed to be decorative for the holidays or when you have friends over.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The best $100 I spent was for my first wine equipment. Winemaking is a joy in my life. I’m glad I took this path.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I really love the app OverDrive. It connects me to my local library, which makes it easy for me to access audio- and e-books for research or entertainment 24 hours a day.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I highly recommend Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.” It’s a book that looks closely at “gifted” people, outliers like the Beatles and Bill Gates, only to find that the real difference between them and us is determination, chance, and opportunity. It’s reassuring to think that if I have the first, and push for the other two, then I can be as successful as I want to be.

What is your favorite quote?

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville

Key Learnings:

• When you want to execute a new idea, create a “road map” to achieve success.
• Group similar tasks to simplify your day and get more work done.
• Meditation and positive thinking help to relieve stress so you can be more productive.
• Networking, community-building, and developing relationships are key for growing a business.
• Stuffing down emotions can have the effect of splitting your focus when you need to be clear, but wallowing in negativity can make you miss opportunity. If you must sit with a failure to process it, set a clearly defined time for it, then move on.