Two Black alums who work with wine open up about the pitfalls of working in such an elitist industry.
In late June, the Quarterly invited Melody Fuller ’82 and Aaliyah Nitoto ’99 to sit down for a conversation about their roles as Black women in wine—Fuller, as a longtime wine journalist, and Nitoto, as a more recent vintner. What ensued was a raw, candid conversation about racism in a very white world, including the Napa Valley and Mills, which is presented here in condensed form.
Mills Quarterly: How did you get started in the industry? How were you first attracted to working with wine?
Melody Fuller: I wasn’t necessarily attracted to the wine industry. Wine and Champagne were a part of our household; my mom would open a new store and we’d always celebrate with Champagne. My parents were social people, so wine was not stigmatized. I started going up to Sonoma County when I was here at Mills, because I wanted to get away on the weekends. I enjoyed wine and met some winemakers in Sonoma, and my love for the industry took off from there.
The larger jump [into the industry] came during my graduate studies. I would visit wineries and often be the only one who looked like me in those spaces. Sonoma County was fine, the rest of the world was fine, but the Napa Valley was a whole different situation. So, at the time (in the late 1980s), I decided: I’m going to conquer Napa and all its uglies. Over the decades, I did some conquering, but many remain.
Aaliyah Nitoto: I was a weird child. I saw adults drinking wine, and that interested me because of course I wasn’t allowed to drink. I was like, “Well, I want to participate, but I can’t have any—I’ll make some!” I used grapes, tabasco sauce, and water, and nobody would drink it, so that didn’t go over very well. What made it so popular and forbidden? It was just something that fascinated me—but drinking alcohol when I was younger never drew me as much as the idea of how to make it.
At Mills, the Career Center had internship opportunities at wineries. I was a biology major, and I remembered being interested in learning to make wine, but I didn’t get any of those internships in Napa. It didn’t seem like there was any room for me to get in back then. So, I went into herbalism. While studying that, I discovered a tradition—by women—of making wine out of plant material in the yard/garden: flowers, non-traditional fruits, herbs, things like that. I’m primarily self-taught. Over the years, I made my first batches of lavender wine in my home, over and over again in a little pot in the closet. Then, I got mentors in the wine industry: I met Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars, and he’d heard of people who make wine from non-traditional ingredients. He gave me his contact information, and that’s how things solidified.
Fuller: Did you have any wine experience at Mills or memories of drinking in the dorms? I was a sociology major, and in the afternoons, we enjoyed wine, cheese, and crackers with our professors during our junior and senior sessions.
Nitoto: I didn’t have any drinking experience until after graduation, when I went to Japan to live and work as a language teacher. I was actually an introvert [at Mills], and I wasn’t very explorative with certain things at that point.
Fuller: How do you think Mills shaped you for this day?
Nitoto: It was really hard to be a Black person at Mills. It’s a crucible, and it’ll grind you down, and if you come out the other end with a sense of who you are intact, after all that heat of forging you, what’s left is a little diamond.
Over the years, I’d developed my formulations, and I brought them to wineries. When I asked for help in making my wine, most of the time it was a flat no for anything from weird ingredients to “I don’t want a woman’s stuff in my space.” At one point, someone actually said, “I’ve had a woman making wine in here before, and I’m not sure I want to do that again.” I also had to deal with sexual innuendos with some makers to get my wine made, quid pro quo. It was easier to keep my boundaries because of Mills and because I had my partner Sam standing there with me—but it was gross. I don’t like talking about those things so much; not because I don’t think they should be talked about, but because I’ve been making wine for a little while. The things I need to say to women, or anybody trying to do something wacky and out there in the world, is that the positive [matters]. Not “you can do it if you believe in yourself!” but “I went through a lot of struggle, and I’ve had a lot of setbacks. But I got back up and dusted myself off.”
I had a custom crush agreement with this one winery—it was the guy who wasn’t sure about hosting a woman again—and one condescending thing he said to me was that he wanted to make sure that I was serious about doing this. He wanted to make sure I had my LLC, the more expensive licensure, and my equipment ready before I moved into the winery. At that time, my partner and I only had $10K together, so we spent $800 for the LLC and various amounts of money for all this equipment, but three days before we were supposed to move in, he pulled out of the deal.
Fuller: A lot of men who make wine don’t have to go through all that, but you’re a Mills woman, you’re here, and you can move forward.
Nitoto: Yeah, I am—but those were the horror stories. I cried for a bit, but then I jumped into my car with a bottle of wine I made in my kitchen, and I drove to the Oak Barrel Winecraft and a few other places that supplied wineries. And I said, “I make good wine, and I need somebody to help me make it.” That’s what I did—and that’s what Mills did for me! I got knocked down a lot, really seriously, and what do you do? You pick yourself up. I finally found a shipping container in West Oakland that [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] and [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] approved, and I started making wine there on my own, which is the way it should have always been. And that’s how I started—we started with $20,000 of personal money from me and my partner, and that’s it.
Aaliyah Nitoto ’99 is the owner and founder of Free Range Flower Winery, which produces wines made from organically grown flowers using ancient (and women-centered) techniques. Entering its fifth year, Free Range is garnering more and more attention across the wine world, with recent features in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle. Free Range started in Oakland and now hosts a tasting room in Livermore, with four main varietals: lavender, rose hibiscus, rose petal, and marigold.
Fuller: About eight or nine years ago, I decided I was going to put together the inaugural Oakland Wine Festival. My idea to bring the best winemakers in the Napa Valley to Oakland stemmed from the rampant racism and bigotry in the fine wine industry. We held it here! It was huge, fully seated, and in this room [the RAH living room], the illustrious Michael Silacci, the winemaker for Opus One, held court for our invited patrons. We took every detail of our educational tastings, seminars, workshops, breakfasts, lunches and dinners, to the highest levels, because I did not want people to say, “Oh, Black people, all they know to do is walk-about [wine festivals].” I don’t do walk-abouts, and those are fine for other people, but that’s not what the festival was about. We were about building relationships, and we did that over our years.
When we held our events (though only the first was held at Mills), I told some people who did not appreciate the top-shelf event we built: “This is not the event for you.” Not every wine event is for everybody. Now, that came from my mother, not Mills. Over time, some people learned to respect what we did and how we did it. Over those five years, we probably brought many of the more than 500 wineries/winemakers from the Napa Valley to Oakland. Over the years, we hosted celebrated winemakers from Italy and France. We brought wonderful women and men winemakers from South Africa to the Oakland Wine Festival, too.
Aaliyah, do you do tastings in your space? How can people taste your wine?
Nitoto: Up until late last year, we didn’t have one. My facility was in West Oakland, and we did tastings at events and wherever we could—private or industry events. Now, we have grown so much that we have a great space and tasting room in Livermore! Right now, with everyone seeing a dip in their sales, wine clubs are really key to survival as well.
Quarterly: How have the pandemic and supply chain issues been affecting your business, or are things OK?
Nitoto: Well, it’s the same as everybody: It’s hard. Glass, especially clear glass, is difficult to come by. The last time around, I bought extras—we usually keep on hand just what we’re going to use because space is a premium. The last time I tried to get bottles, they said, “It’s going to be four to six months out.” Which was not good—especially because our business is so young, and we needed capital. The great thing is that there’s a couple of wineries in the same row as mine, and they’ve asked, “Can we buy some bottles from you?” And I let them, but they’re ordering the bottles—we’re helping each other.
Fuller: Do you do splits (half bottles)?
Nitoto: Yes. The sparkling lavender was my first wine, and because it’s so different than anything you’ve ever tasted, I didn’t want to sell it in full bottles, because I wanted people to feel comfortable about buying and finishing what they get. I also call it a “me-time” bottle because people will buy it and have it for themselves—or they can share with a friend. That’s been so popular that I’ve put my newest wine in splits: a sparkling wine, red clover. When you open it, it has the scent of cinnamon and fresh stone fruit.
Fuller: What was your class color at Mills?
Fuller: Shoot! I was about to say, “Bring the red clover to Reunion!” My class color is green.
Quarterly: You’ve brought wines here to Reunions before.
Nitoto: Yes! It was a lot of fun. It was for graduation and Reunion.
I certainly have a love-hate thing with Mills—it took me a long time to even come back after leaving. I was like, “I’m done!” One day, if Mills is able to come to some kind of healthy relationship with all communities on its campus, then it’s going to be so special.
Quarterly: How long have you been in the industry, Aaliyah?
Nitoto: I’m going into my fifth year!
Quarterly: I’m curious how the industry has evolved since the year you started—four to five years versus several decades for Melody.
Fuller: I write about this often. I prefer to write about what’s in the bottle—however, being a Black woman in a white space, I don’t always get invited to do that. Honestly, in the fine wine industry, there has not been much racial evolution over the decades.
I like to talk about what’s inside the bottles because there are very few Black wine writers or columnists, and there are no Black wine magazine or newspaper editors. We don’t own any of the big four wine magazines, nor are Black writers listed on mastheads unless they’re guest contributors. Most Black people writing wine columns are guests. Wine books? Name the first Black person you know who has published a wine book. This is a national tragedy. We have to do the work behind the scenes to get significant and lasting change. Until we own shit, we’re really not about shit, and the white people are like, “Uh huh, I’ll help you do this little bit this one time, because you’ll never be where I am in the wine industry.”
All of wine writing and publishing has to change. Maybe the consumers (and college alumni wine clubs) will demand this.
Melody Fuller ’82 founded the Oakland Wine Festival seven years ago, which has grown in size and international acclaim. In addition, she created The Exceptional Vine, a mentoring program for aspiring young winemakers. She is a renowned wine writer who travels the world for research and to build relationships with vintners. Fuller also serves as the food and wine editor of Alameda County Renew Magazine, and she’s appeared on television and in articles to talk about her life as an oenophile. Fuller, a twice invited attendee to the Wine Writers’ Symposium in Napa, was named director of fellowships and admissions for The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. She holds a master’s in public administration from USC and a master’s in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine.
Nitoto: In 2020, our winery was struggling along in our little shipping container in West Oakland. When George Floyd was murdered, all of a sudden, everything blew up for me. People were going to my website, my Facebook, my Instagram, getting on our mailing list, asking questions, joining our wine club. It was so amazing to finally get recognition, but “bittersweet” is not even close to how it felt.
Fuller: Back then, I said, “If you decide to make a deal with the devil—using Mr. George Floyd Jr.’s blood money—to advance yourself in any way, that’s on you. Doing so is not sustainable, and it’s also not a good business model. What you’re doing is giving white, corporate America a pacifier.” I didn’t want any piece of that. Where’s the morality on both ends of that transaction?
I get it, but two summers later, where are we? Businesses—especially African Americans in the business—are hurting. Not everyone in the wine world is hurting: That first year, 2020-21, profits and wine consumption were up 300% overall. Black wineries that shared information experienced a bump before the bottom fell out. This Black Lives Matter guilt-spending was not sustainable. Guilt money does not go to the bank year after year. Emotions don’t keep the doors of any Black business open.
Nitoto: Going up against the system, who’s going to suffer?
Fuller: You! I mentor five young ladies in the industry. They’re all doing different things, they’re all in different places in their journeys, and they’re winning. When each woman makes decisions, she’s growing. I tell my mentees, you have to run everything through your core visions, values, and morals, and you have to ask, “What is your legacy going to be?” This is how you stay in business and how you teach people how to respect you as a professional businesswoman.