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.
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.