Theodora Lee, owner of the Yorkville, California-based Theopolis Vineyards, is one of the Craft Wine Association’s newest members. She also has a tremendously diverse background. What is more, she also fits in our lineup to profile black winemakers in February in honor of African-American heritage month. All responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
So we took a little time to ask her a few questions. Lee is a partner in the law firm of Littler Mendelson. There have, curiously, been many attorneys who have gone into the law practice: including the iconic Robert Parker. So there is clearly an academic mindset with a legal background that overlaps with that of big thinkers in the wine business.
Craft Wine Association (CWA):
So a jump from law to wine is a big one, what made you make the decision?
Theodora Lee (TL): I have not jumped from law to wine as I am still a full-time lawyer and law firm partner at Littler Mendelson. Law is my profession. Wine is my passion. Fortunately, most attorneys love fine wine so I have been able to combine both quite successfully. I primarily sell my wines direct to consumer so I have been able to promote my brand through various speaking engagements throughout the country while traveling for law.
CWA: How has law influenced your wine production methods?
TL: Well, my law firm mentors first introduced me to the world of fine wine. As a young associate in the 1980s, there were no fax machines, emails or other electronic means of sending content: so I had to travel to wherever the partner was located to deliver the brief, and sometimes that would be Napa or Sonoma where a particular partner had a wine country home.
While visiting, I would be invited to stay for diner and was introduced to many interesting wines. We also walked the vineyards and I learned about wine making from my mentor’s husband who was a physicist. As a result, I fell in love with the wine lifestyle: great wine, great food and being out in the vineyard.
Having learned to drive a tractor at the age of eight back in Texas, I thought I could combine my love for nature, my farming background and become a grape farmer. However, it took me more than years to save enough money to buy farm land and then I planted my vineyard.
CWA: What made you come to California and how did you choose Yorkville?
TL: I moved to California immediately after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law to work as an attorney at my law firm. So, I have been in California for more than 30 years. As I mentioned, I started looking to plant a vineyard back in the 1980s, but it was not until 2001 that I was able to afford to buy farm land.
I choose Yorkville Highlands as it was affordable. Napa and Sonoma were beyond my budget. But, the Yorkville Highlands offered ideal growing conditions for craft wines. My property is surrounding by redwood and fir trees with rocky hill soils characterized by gravel and old brittle rock. Before purchasing the land, I hired Richard Thomas—who was then a professor of viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College—to conduct soil digs to make sure the land was suitable for growing grapes.
CWA: What are your favorite varietals and why do you think they grow well there?
TL: My favorite varietal is my estate-grown Petite Sirah. Because we lose sun after 6 pm in the summer and it gets very hot during the day, we determined that a red grape was ideal, but one that did not need full sun all the time. So, we selected Petite Sirah. Indeed, it was a great choice. I planted my vineyards in 2003 and had my first harvest in 2006. Wine critic Robert Parker gave us a stellar rating of 94 to 96 points, which was a spectacular showing for my first harvest.
CWA: What made you decide to go into the wine business?
TL: For the first few years, I sold all of my Petite Sirah grapes to Carlisle Winery and a few urban wineries in the Bay Area. I was quite content simply being a grower. Then, in 2012, an ill-timed rain fell during harvest and I rushed to pick the grapes, but they came in at 23 brix (which can be seen a lower sugar level for some producers).
The buyer at that time had contracted for the grapes to be picked at 25 brix, so they rejected the entire lot. Faced with no one willing to purchase fruit at a lower brix level at that time, I decided to have her fruit custom-crushed in Hopland, a few miles from my vineyard.
Having no money to finish making wine, my 2012 wines were made entirely on the barter system. I gave the winemaker at the custom-crush facility half of my harvest for free, if, in turn, they would process the other half of the harvest and make wines for Theopolis Vineyards.
At the time, I could not afford to hire a winemaker and so the barter system worked in my favor. I only paid for the bottles, capsules, corks and labels; which were need two years later when the wine was ready for bottling. I am pleased to report that my 2012 Petite Sirah received a gold medal from the Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition. So, that was my entry into the wine business.
CWA: Where did you study?
TL: Before planting my vineyard, I took course at the University of California at Davis on establishing and managing a small vineyard. Then, after being forced to make wine, I took another course in the UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology department.
CWA: Where did you decide to make wine and why?
TL: Again, I just wanted to be a grape farmer, but because of having to pick in the rain, I was forced to bottle wine. Now, I love being a vintner and a wine maker.
CWA: Why do you think there are so few black winemakers, and black executives, in the wine business in general?
TL: The wine business has been dominated primarily by white men who inherited the business from their ancestors. Not too many blacks have had that privilege. Because there are enormous costs associated with being a vintner, i.e., the land, the winemaking equipment, etc., that has proved to be a barrier for many blacks interested in being a winemaker.
CWA: How do you approach making wine differently, if you do?
TL: Well, for me quality is most important. Although we could produce 20 tons of grapes, we cut back production to about 10 tons to produce the best quality grapes. As I have always stated, great wine starts in the vineyard. For me, as a granddaughter of a sharecropper, it is critical for me to be the best vintner; not just the best black vintner.
I have been fully supported by the African-American community as my wines are some of the best in the business. However, I do not just market to the black community. I market to all fine wine drinkers. I put my wines in various competitions and submit to Wine Enthusiast for ratings, and so far the wines have earned 90-plus points and various gold medals. So, if you make quality product and promote your wines, then you have a successful marketing plan.
CWA: Why do you think there has been a reinvigorated wave of African-American winemakers in places like Oakland?
TL: I live in Oakland and there has been a reinvigorated wave of African-American winemakers: thanks in part to having custom-crush facilities where a winemaker produces the wine and folks are able to add their own label and bottle the wines for market. This is great as it has allowed more African-Americans to enter the wine business.
CWA: Is the fact that winemaking is not an incredibly lucrative profession has had an effect on the number of black winemakers who go into the business (as it requires a high level of education with relatively little return on investment?).
TL: Absolutely. As they say “to make a million in the wine business, you need to start with a billion.” I do not know too many people who have that luxury. That is why I have never taken a loan and run my business on a cash-only basis.