Theodora Lee was eight years old when she first learned how to drive her father’s tractor. She loved riding around the fields, helping her parents with the crops, roping horses, and exploring the bounty of nature that surrounded her family’s farm in Ennis, Texas. But she didn’t have a clue just how much of an influence that love of farming and the great outdoors would have on her as an adult.
Fast forward several years and a successful law career later, Lee is thriving as the vineyard owner and operator of Theopolis Vineyards, a winery in the Yorkville Highlands — a particularly prestigious region of California’s Anderson Valley known for lush and fertile soils perfect for grape growing. Lee, a Spelman grad, is one of the first Black women to own a slice of land in the area. However, her penchant for producing some of the finest wines in Northern California has come to outweigh her reputation of being the first person who looks like her to do it there. Starting with her very first vintage of Estate Grown Petit Sirah, Lee’s wines have won some of the highest wine awards and accolades.
Considering how big a role farming played in her adolescence, it should come as no surprise how well she has done as a vineyard owner and winemaker.
“Farming is a part of my DNA,” says Lee. “My grandfather was a sharecropper, so my dad believed in land ownership. He bought a farm in Ellis County as soon as he could afford to do so, and even though he worked as a school principal, he raised cattle and horses in his spare time. We spent our weekends at the farm building barns, herding cattle, fishing, gardening, and riding horses. Farming is in my blood.”
Of course, Lee’s journey to becoming a vintner was no easy feat. It took a lot of hard work, discipline, determination, and money. Plus, she had to learn to love wine. Having grown up sneaking her father’s home brew made out of muscadine grapes, she wasn’t even a fan of the drink until she started practicing law in the 1980s. It wasn’t the taste of wine that necessarily hooked her either — it was the grape growing.
After graduating from the University of Texas Law School, Lee was recruited to join the legal team at Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. At a time when there were no fax machines, emails, or Wi-Fi, she would drive out to see her partners when she needed briefs and documents reviewed. This often meant hitting the highway and heading out to Napa Valley to visit a colleague at their weekend home.
On one particular journey out to wine country, Lee got the chance to hop back on a tractor and drive through her law firm mentor’s personal vineyards. It was at that moment that she began to envision owning a vineyard of her own.
“I fell in love with the wine lifestyle — great wine, great food, and being out in beautiful vineyards. That’s when the dream started, but I knew it would take a while to earn enough money to buy farmland in California,” she says.
Not to mention, she needed to learn the ropes of growing grapes. So while she saved up for her dream property, she took viticulture classes at UC Davis Viticulture & Enology School. In 2001, she was finally able to buy 20 acres of sheep land in the Yorkville Highlands and named the property after her Greek name, Theo-patra, which she adopted after pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in undergrad.
“From 2003 until 2012, I was quite content being a grape farmer and selling my Petite Sirah to various premium wineries,” she says. “Grapes from Theopolis Vineyards received stellar ratings by wine critic Robert Parker, which put me on the map.”
But in 2012, when unexpected rain hit, forcing Lee to pick her crop earlier than usual, she was left with a ton of grapes that were impossible to sell. So, she decided to make the wine herself, thus inadvertently creating the first release of Theopolis Vineyards, which was bottled and released to the public in 2014. Upon its debut, Theopolis’ first vintage of Petite Sirah received a gold medal from Sunset Magazine.
Now Theopolis Vineyards is in full swing as a winery, producing about 2,500 cases of wine annually. With all the responsibilities of maintaining the vineyards and the winery, on top of still practicing law, Lee is keeping busy. But that hasn’t stopped her from taking on new projects, including launching the Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund to promote inclusivity in the wine industry.
“As my father taught me, one must lift as one climbs. I established this fund to encourage future vintners, especially women of color,” says Lee. “If there is a more diverse pool of people trained as vineyard managers, winemakers, or vintners, then the wine industry as a whole will be more diverse.”