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How this California vintner pushed open doors for Black women in the wine industry

“I’m happy to say that now there is a lot of opportunity for women and people of color in the wine industry,” says the trailblazing owner and founder of Mendocino County’s Theopolis Vineyards.

Theopolis Vineyards owner and founder Theodora Lee, described on her website as “Theo-Patra, Queen of the Vineyards,” was recently honored by the Association of African American Vintners as a trailblazer as first Black female owner of a vineyard in Northern California

A bold, energetic, multi-tasker with the salt-and-pepper braids, she celebrated her 60th birthday this summer by inviting 70 friends to Costa Rica for a “fabulous destination party.” Lee has faced, as she describes it, the double-edged problem of systemic racism and “the belittling fist that sexism and misogyny have wrapped around my throat.”

She says that despite a string of gold medals, best of class designations and 90-plus point wines, she still has distributors and brokers who question the marketability of her brand.

Since she planted her first grapes in 2003 in Mendocino County, Lee has not only developed award-winning wines (complete with a label whose image of the ancient Egyptian queen is stylized with a bit more thigh and hip) but has also maintained a full-time career as a senior partner and trial lawyer at Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest labor and employment law firm.

Her biography states Lee was the first African American woman to be a managing partner at the Oakland branch of the firm. In addition, she flies back to her childhood home of Dallas each month to spend time with her 96-year-old-mother who is living with Altzheimer’s.

Lee travels to pour at national wine events, makes television and radio appearances, visits high-end restaurants who carry her wines to give tastings and host winemaker dinners, and somehow finds time to give back to the community.

She is co-board chairperson of the Dallas Post Tribune, one of the oldest Black newspapers in North Texas, on the board of the YMCA of San Francisco and has previous board and advisory experience with Bay Area Legal Aid, Black United Fund, Alameda County Community Food Bank, and United Negro College Fund San Francisco.

Following is a glimpse into the heart and mind of Theodora Lee.

Theodora Lee, founder of Theopolis Vineyards, in Yorkville, Calif. on Monday, September 12, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Theodora Lee, founder of Theopolis Vineyards, in Yorkville, Calif. on Monday, September 12, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

How did the name of the vineyard and your title “Theo-Patra, Queen of the Vineyards” originate?

Theopolis was the Greek name my sorority sisters gave me when I pledged Delta Sigma Theta at Spellman College. Everyone calls me Theo, so Theopolis Vineyards comes from my given name with a Greek twist.

When the actor Diahann Carroll and her god-daughter came to visit me on the property and observed me out on the tractor, they dubbed me “Theo-Patra, Queen of the Vineyards.” The graphic artist who ended up years later working on my wine labels had heard about my nickname, so he submitted one design based on the image of Egyptian queen Cleopatra. I loved the label, but told him he had to revise it to add more hips and thigh to the image of “Theopatra” because she is more of a robust woman, like me!

How did you get started? Who were your mentors?

I never planned to bottle wine; I wanted to be a grape farmer. My father had a farm outside of Dallas where I learned to drive a tractor at age 8. My only experience with wine was this nasty syrupy stuff my Dad made from wild muscadine grapes.

When I came to practice law in San Francisco, one of my colleagues, Barbara Oddone and her husband Pier, who was a physicist, invited me to their vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. Pier let me drive his tractor in that vineyard, and that’s what sold me. I thought, yes, I can be a gentlewoman farmer.

The Oddones were my mentors in law and wine. Barbara gave me the opportunity to manage and handle cases from the beginning so that I was not doing hodge-podge work and could be a full-on lawyer. When I was frustrated about not being able to afford land in Sonoma or Napa, they suggested I look in Mendocino County.

They mentored me all along the way, even to this day, when they are retired with grandkids. They are members of our wine club, they come to the Harvest Party and are still an instrumental part of my life.

In 2001, during escrow on the sale of the Yorkville Highlands property in Mendocino County, I had Richard Thomas, a retired professor of viticulture at SRJC, come out to make sure the land was suitable for growing grapes, and when I closed escrow, he and his son, who was a viticulturist, come to figure out what varietal would grow best. They determined it was petite sirah, which I’d never heard of before. Actually, this hillside land had some of the most pristine growing conditions.

I planted in 2003, clearing land, doing soil tests, obtaining permits to remove some trees, drilling an agricultural well and terracing the property. I had my first Petite Sirah harvest in 2006. My only goal was to sell my grapes to an award-winning winery and that’s what I did from 2003-2012.

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What caused the switch from just growing to bottling?

In 2012, an untimely storm caused me to pick in the rain. I had to pick at a lower brix (sugar level of the grapes) than the contract required and the lot was rejected. I had ten tons of grapes with no home.

When I was forced to bottle wine, I called on another of my mentors, Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars. We call him the granddaddy of Black vintners. (McDonald is a co-founder of the Association of African American Vintners.)

“Mac, what do I do now? I’ve been selling grapes; I don’t know what to do with wine.”

Mac was always someone I could consult with about the challenges of the business.

I bartered for the custom crush, saved for two years to buy the bottles and caps. We bottled the vintage of 2012 in 2014. That wine won gold at Sunset Magazine. So I’ve been bottling commercially since 2014. The first year I bottled 300 cases and now I’m bottling 2,500 cases.

Theodora Lee, left, owner of Yorkville’s Theopolis Vineyards is presented an award. She’s the first Black female owner of a vineyard in Northern California. (AAAV)
Theodora Lee, left, owner of Yorkville’s Theopolis Vineyards is presented an award. She’s the first Black female owner of a vineyard in Northern California. (AAAV)

At your AAAV award ceremony you mentioned the double-edged sword of racism and sexism as a vineyard owner and wine producer. What has been your experience?

It’s about who you know in the business, especially as a grower. At first, I had a vineyard manager who had connections. When I had to sell grapes on my own, I had the reputation of a good (wine reviewer Robert) Parker review, but people didn’t take me seriously.

Who is this little Black girl trying to sell me premium grapes for premium prices? But I’m persistent! I’ve been opening doors and knocking down barriers in law and wine, and I’m happy to say that now there is a lot of opportunity for women and people of color in the wine industry. I think the wine industry has made far more strides in the last 20 years than the legal industry.

I was just at TEXSOM, one of the largest beverage conferences in the world, where they asked the AAAV to host a diversity reception and allowed several of us to pour at the expo. That has never happened before in the history of that organization. I was invited to pour at the International Pinot Noir Celebration—the only African American pouring—and there were 200 wineries there.

It’s still a small room, but more recently opportunities have opened up. I feel that I have been preparing a long time to walk through those doors when they open.

What is the price range of your wines? Do you have a favorite, or a vineyard star?

My estate grown Petite Sirah is what I am known for and that is the wine where everyone who has touched those grapes makes consistently award-winning wine. Going back to my first harvest in 2006 my estate grown Petite has been my signature wine, winning golds and double golds, best in class, and 94-96 points.

The 2018 got a higher rating, but for me, the 2019 Petite Sirah is THE baby. If I had one wine to take anywhere, that is what I would take. It’s age worthy, it is earthy, it has light tannins, the right acidity. [Lee hugs herself in a gesture of pleasure and then reads the poetic catalog description of her favorite Petite Sirah.] I say it’s perfect paired with any kind of wild game, smoked brisket, braised short ribs. I’m from Dallas, Texas. I like a big, bold wine like the big, bold woman I am.

What are the ways you market and build relationships?

Of course, we have a wine club, overseen by my “wine daughter” Ashanti Brown, who is the customer experience manager. Pre-Covid, I did a lot of training work in corporate America — harassment prevention training, diversity training, compliance training. I would go into corporate headquarters with two suitcases of clothes for depositions and seminars during the days and two suitcases of wine for evenings of tastings and dinners.

My primary marketing is reaching out to friends when I travel and by posting events. I’m about to leave for Los Angeles where I am doing a wine tasting at a restaurant that carries my wine. I don’t mind having my wines in restaurants because if people like the wine, they go to my website and buy it. No distributor needed. That three-tier system is just not good for me.

The other piece of my marketing is social media. With no time to do it myself, I have a group of experts to manage our online presence: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and an email list of five or six thousand people to whom I send newsletters once a quarter. I make personal appearances; I have friends host house parties; I have wine bars host tastings; I have restaurants do wine dinners. My marketing philosophy is “no one thing, all of the above.”

What are you excited about these days?

My passion in life is travel, seeing the world through food and wine. This is what I want to do in retirement when I no longer need to practice law. I am most excited about the opportunity to host a river cruise for wine lovers in 2023. The cruise is called the Essence of Burgundy & Provence.

I will be the first African American Woman to host a river cruise in the history of AmaWaterways. We will adventure along the Rhône and Saône rivers for seven nights, November 9-16. So far about 20 of my wine club members have booked their cruise which has 73 staterooms available for 140 passengers.

If I do well on this, they will be asking me to host the next one, perhaps in Australia and New Zealand. To be able to merge my passion for travel and wine, that’s what I’m living for.

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