Theodora Lee moonlights. The senior partner and trial lawyer of Littler in San Francisco is also the vintner of Theopolis Vineyards in Mendocino County’s Yorkville Highlands.
A tractor ride through a vineyard is what spurred Lee to begin her extracurricular profession.
“In the ’80s, when I began practicing law, there were no fax machines, emails, Wi-Fi or other means of electronic communications,” she said. “So if I needed a law firm partner to review a brief or other legal document, and that partner was at his or her weekend home in Wine Country, I would drive it there.”
The good life of food, wine and farming continues to have great appeal for Lee. The vintner is behind our wine of the week winner — the Theopolis Vineyards, 2020 Pinot Noir, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino County at $45. It’s an impressive pinot noir that edges out its competitors because it over-delivers for its price. It’s complex and well-crafted, layered with notes of strawberry, black cherry, sandalwood, a hint of caramel and a kiss of vanilla on the finish. What makes it a standout is its high-toned red fruit.
“As my 96-year-old mother will tell you, I have been an entrepreneur since the age of 5, with my red wagon going door to door selling newspapers,” Lee said. “So, when I set out to produce my own pinot noir, I wanted it to be fruit-forward, with less minerality.”
The vintner’s dream of owning a vineyard took root back in the 1980s. After saving money for two decades, she bought 20 acres of sheep pasture in 2001 in Anderson Valley and began developing her vineyard.
“The process was intensive,” Lee said. “I had to do soil digs, clear the land and conduct land analysis to ensure the land was suitable for grape growing. Finally, in 2003, I planted my vineyard, adopted my Greek name, from pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Spelman College (in Atlanta, Georgia), and established Theopolis Vineyards.”
In the wine world, Lee said, she’s known as Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards. Now 59, the vintner took courses as part of UC Davis’ Viticulture & Enology continuing education series, including classes in small vineyard management and introduction to wine and winemaking.
Lee said she was content to simply farm grapes, but in 2012 an ill-timed rain during harvest changed her direction. A winemaker rejected her grapes, so she decided to have her fruit custom crushed, and she has crafted her own wine ever since.
Today Lee, with her winemaking consultant Emiddio Justin Massa, produces 1,500 to 2,000 cases year of a handful of bottlings. Paying it forward, she created the Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund and donated $70,000 to UC Davis. The scholarships, of up to $10,000 yearly, are for students interested in viticulture, enology or vineyard management, and the first one was awarded this year. The goal is to help students who are underrepresented in the industry better understand the barriers in the wine industry, Lee said.
“As one of the few African American women who owns her own vineyard, I hope to inspire others to become vintners,” she said. “It’s important that young folks know that they, too, can pursue careers in viticulture, vineyard management and even own a vineyard and thrive in the wine industry.”
Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5310.
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