Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards
During the month of February, Vinequity will feature black wine professionals in the industry making a difference. By no means are the icons we feature here the extent of the list of black change agents, but let us introduce you to a few to get started.
Let us introduce you to Theodora Lee, A.K.A. Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards
Vineyard: Theopolis Vineyards
Location: California, USA
V: How did you land in the wine industry?
TL: I am Theodora Lee, a partner and trial lawyer at Littler in San Francisco, and the founder and owner of Theopolis Vineyards in the Yorkville Highlands of Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California. My passion for wine began upon my arrival to San Francisco from Texas in 1987, primarily due to the influence of my law firm mentors, many of whom owned vineyards. One law firm mentor grew grapes in the Dry Creek appellation, and I spent several summers hanging out in Healdsburg, and fell in love with the lifestyle – good food and great wine. This led me to take several viticulture classes at UC Davis, before deciding to develop my own vineyard. As the granddaughter of Texas sharecroppers and the daughter of a cattle farmer, I learned how to drive a tractor, at the age of 8. My farming roots continued in California.
So, in 2001, I purchased sheep land in the Yorkville Highlands of Anderson Valley, and began developing my vineyard. This process was quite complex from clearing land, doing soil tests, obtaining permits to remove some trees, drilling an agricultural well, and terracing the property. Finally, in 2003, I planted my 5 acre vineyard, and adopted my Greek name, from pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and established Theopolis Vineyards. At the same time, I became a charter member of the Association of African American vintners, and a member of the Yorkville Highlands Growers & Vintners Association, becoming its General Counsel.
In the wine world, I am known as Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards. Some creative types who caught a glimpse of me with my silver-hair a top a tractor dubbed me Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards. Wine Critic Robert Parker bestowed upon wine made from grapes harvested from Theopolis Vineyards a stellar rating of 94-96 points, a spectacular showing for the vintner's first harvest in 2006.
Emboldened by the great fruit produced by the land, I bottled my first commercial wines in 2014. In addition to bottling the richly intense and flavorful Petite Sirah, we strike a lighter note by bottling a Symphony, a white wine grape, which is a crossing of Muscat and Grenache Gris. Theopolis Vineyards also offers: a Rosé of Petite Sirah, an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, and a Yorkville Highlands Pinot Noir.
Theopolis Vineyards is best known for its Best in Class, Double Gold, 96 Points Estate Grown Petite Sirah and its Double Gold Rosé of Petite Sirah. Wine Enthusiast Magazine has consistently given wines from Theopolis Vineyards 90 plus Points and selected its wines for Cellar Selection and Editors’ Choice designations. Recently, our 2018 Estate Grown Petite Sirah was given 96 Points and Cellar Selection by Wine Enthusiast, tied with the highest rating ever given a Petite Sirah by Wine Enthusiast. Our wines have likewise received Gold Medals from The Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
V: If you were a wine grape, what would that be, and why?
TL: Of course, I would be a Petite Sirah Grape because it is big and bold like me.
V: What is your favourite food and wine pairing?
TL: T-Bone Steak and Petite Sirah
V: Who are some of the people, industry or not, that inspire you the most?
TL: My father was a great inspiration to me. As a son of a sharecropper, my dad left home for a better life and never graduated high school, but after working to save for college, he got his GED, and ultimately his Doctor of Education. So, he taught me that hard work and perseverance are essential for success. As indicated earlier, my passion for wine began upon my arrival to San Francisco from Texas in 1987, primarily due to the influence of my law firm mentors, many of whom owned vineyards. In particular, Barbara de Oddone of the Oddone Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley was one of my greatest inspirations in the wine business.
Also, Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars was an early mentor in the wine business.
V: Any advice for black wine professionals who would like to make it to the top of the industry?
TL: Success will not come overnight, so be prepared and ready to walk thru the door when the opportunity arrives. Always seek excellence and work hard to be the best.
V: Anything you would like us to promote or amplify?
TL: We are in the process of establishing a scholarship at the University of California Davis to help support people of color and women who are interested in careers in viticulture. I truly believe that one must lift as we climb and I hope this scholarship allows others to follow in my footsteps.
In addition to practicing law and making wine, Ms. Lee serves on the Board of Directors of the YMCA of San Francisco and Bay Area Legal Aid. She is the Past President of Bay Area Black United Fund and the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
Ms. Lee is a graduate of Spelman College and the University Of Texas School Of Law. Prior to entering the practice of law, Ms. Lee worked as a Senate intern in Washington, D.C., for Senator Sam Nunn.
Thank you Ms Theodora Lee for sharing with us!