Hail to the Queen

Theodora Lee

Posted on August 29, 2021

Though a longtime San Francisco law firm senior partner and trial lawyer, Theodora Lee is known in the wine world as “Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards.” She’s the founder and vintner of Theopolis Vineyards, a small lot vineyard and hand-crafted winery located in the Yorkville Highlands of the Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County.

Growing up on a Texas cattle ranch, Lee learned how to drive a tractor at the age of 8, and fell hard for farming and the outdoors. She didn’t think much of wine, though, associating it with a “nasty, sweet and syrupy” home brew her dad made from wild Muscadine grapes. Her interest in wine began in the 1980s, when she moved to California and was introduced to fine vintages by her law firm mentors.

"I believe in hard work and grit, and I never give up. "

Back in those days, there were no fax machines, emails, Wi-Fi, or other means of electronic communications, so if she needed a law firm partner to review a brief or other legal document on the weekends, she’d drive it to that partner’s weekend home. One of these partners was Barbara Oddone, who along with her husband Pier, owns Oddone Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley AVA. While Barbara reviewed briefs, Theodora would be invited to stay for dinner, which was always paired with fine wine, and to take a walk in the vineyard amongst their Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah.

Lee quickly fell in love with this wine-country lifestyle— great wine, great food, and being out in the vineyard—and began to envision becoming a grape farmer, with a vineyard of her own.

To prepare herself for this dream career, she took viticulture classes at UC Davis to learn how to develop a vineyard, and began looking at land in Napa and Sonoma. She soon found she couldn’t afford to buy in those notoriously pricey locations, so Oddone suggested that she look north instead, in yet-undeveloped Mendocino County.

"As a grower, I—along with my vineyard manager—are intricately involved in all seasonal activities associated with the vineyard.”

In 2001, Lee took the equity out of her home and purchased 20 acres in the Yorkville Highlands, beginning the intensive process of establishing her vineyard with soil digs, land clearing, and analysis to ensure the land was suitable for grape growing. Two years later she finally planted her five-acre vineyard with Petite Sirah, adopted her Greek name (from pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Spelman College), and established Theopolis Vineyards. Her dream of being a grape farmer had become a reality.

For almost a decade, Lee was content being a grape farmer—plowing the land, pruning the vines, fertilizing the vineyard, mowing, chopping, weed-eating, controlling erosion, tying the shoots up to T-posts, fruit-thinning, and picking the grapes during harvest. “As any winemaker will tell you, great wine starts in the vineyard,” Lee says. “That’s why vineyard management is essential to growing premium wine grapes. As a grower, I—along with my vineyard manager—are intricately involved in all seasonal activities associated with the vineyard.”

Initially, she sold her Petite Sirah to such esteemed clients as Carlisle Winery and Halcyon Vineyards. For her first harvest in 2006, critic Robert Parker bestowed stellar ratings of 94-96 points upon wines made from Theopolis Vineyards grapes, a spectacular showing that helped build her reputation as a grower.

Farming is fickle, though.  In 2012, an ill-timed rain compromised the growing season, forcing a client to reject this contracted fruit; finding herself in a pinch, Lee decided to custom-crush these grapes under her own label. When her resulting 2012 Petite Sirah received a gold medal from Sunset Magazine, Theopolis Vineyards was officially underway.

Since then, the winery has consistently produced 90 + point, Best in Class, Double Gold and Gold Medal wines. “I love serving pleasure in the bottle,” Lee says with a smile. “When the consumer enjoys our wines, that’s a fantastic experience that I really enjoy.”

“Unfortunately, racism exists in every facet of society, and the white-male-dominated wine industry is no exception.”

Lee loves being part of the wine industry, too, but feels it needs to be much more diverse and inclusive. “Unfortunately, racism exists in every facet of society, and the white-male-dominated wine industry is no exception,” she says. “It’s been very challenging finding distributors and getting my wines in high-end restaurants and wine bars.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have my law firm partners introduce me to restaurant and bar owners, and those introductions have facilitated me overcoming those hurdles.”

Her wines are now in some of the finest restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she still faces consistent rejection from distributors. A believer in hard work and grit, though, she never gives up and keeps pounding the pavement.

This persistence often pays off. After toiling in the wine industry since 2003, Lee was awarded Wine Business Monthly’s Wine Industry Leader Award in 2020. For her, this doesn’t make up for the lack of diversity in the industry, but she was certainly happy to be acknowledged by her peers.

As a winery owner,” Lee says proudly, “my goal is to produce award-winning wines. When Theopolis Vineyards is so recognized, I feel very satisfied.”

Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards finds joy in traveling the world, exploring vineyards, and sharing a meal and a glass of wine—or occasionally a vodka soda—with family and friends. The wine country lifestyle is now her lifestyle.