Founded in 2003, Theopolis Vineyards is a small lot vineyard and hand-crafted winery located in California’s prestigious Yorkville Highlands of the Anderson Valley.
The vineyard is owned by Ms. Theodora Lee, a charter member of the Association of African American Vintners, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and a senior partner, and trial lawyer at Littler Mendelson P.C.
We caught up with Ms. Lee to find out more about her and her business.
What inspired you to get into the wine industry?
My inspiration to get into the wine industry began when I moved to California from Texas in the 1980s when I was introduced to fine wine by my law firm mentors. Prior to that, I really did not drink wine because my dad picked wild Muscadine grapes and made home brew.
Given that Muscadine was my first introduction to wine, and I found that sweet and syrupy wine nasty, I really had no taste for wine until I moved to California in the ’80s, and learned about fine wine.
In the 80s when I began practicing law, there were no fax machines, emails, Wi-Fi, or other means of electronic communications, so if I needed a law firm partner to review a brief or other legal document, and that partner was at his/her weekend home, I would drive it to that partner’s weekend home. While the partner reviewed the brief, I would be invited to stay for dinner, and we would drink fine wine.
Also, I was allowed to walk the vineyards. Given the fact that I learned to drive on a tractor at the age of 8 at my father’s cattle ranch that experience got me interested in grape farming. At that point, I envisioned owning my own vineyard one day. Having my own vineyard would allow me to combine my love for farming and the outdoors, and become a grape farmer. Also, I fell in love with the wine lifestyle – great wine, great food and being out in the vineyard.
From 2003 until 2012, I was quite content being a grape farmer, plowing the land, pruning the vines, fertilizing the vineyard, mowing, chopping, weed eating, erosion control, tying the shoots up to T-posts, fruit thinning, and picking the grapes during Harvest.
As any wine maker will tell you, Great Wine starts in the Vineyard. That is 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, I sold my Petite Sirah to Carlisle Winery, Halcon Vineyards, and a few other premium wineries. I was quite content simply being a grower. Indeed, 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 my first harvest in 2006. That put me on the map.
Then, in 2012, an ill-timed rain fell during harvest and I rushed to pick my grapes at 23 brix. The buyer at that time (no longer Carlisle) had contracted for grapes at 25 brix, so they rejected the entire lot. Faced with no one willing to purchase fruit at a lower brix level at the last minute, I decided to have my fruit custom-crushed.
I then bartered to get the wine produced. Specifically, I gave the winemaker half of my harvest for free, if, in turn, he would process the other half and make my wines. So, that 2012 vintage was bottled in 2014.
Fortunately, my 2012 Petite Sirah received a gold medal from Sunset Magazine and soon thereafter, Theopolis Vineyards was underway. Since then, we have consistently produced 90 + point, Best in Class, Double Gold and Gold Medal wines.
Can you describe the process you went through to develop your vineyard?
Well, to develop my own vineyard, I took several viticulture classes at UC Davis Viticulture School and learned about viticulture. However, California land is not cheap. Although I looked at properties in Napa and Sonoma, I could not afford land in those locations.
My law firm and vineyard mentor suggested that I look at Mendocino County. So, in 2001, I took the equity out of my home and purchased 20 acres in the Yorkville Highlands of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and began developing my vineyard. That process was intensive, as I had to do soil digs, clear the land, 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, and established Theopolis Vineyards. So, my dream of being a grape farmer came to reality in 2003 when I planted 5 acres of Petite Sirah grapes.
How has the pandemic affected your business if at all?
Well, like others, living in the COVID-19 era is very stressful. Because I still practice law full time, I was able to offer free shipping during this ongoing pandemic, which eliminated the biggest hurdle to buying wines online. As a result, our on-line sales increased.
We have pivoted and do virtual tastings for sororities, fraternities, non-profit organizations, corporations, corporate boards, team building, leadership organizations, etc. Thus, we have actually been able to expand our business. In 2019, we produced and sold between 800-1000 cases of wine. Since 2020, we have increased our production to 2500 cases annually and doing a decent job getting the wines sold.
What barriers have you encountered in the wine industry and how did you overcome them?
Well, unfortunately, racism exists in every facet of society, and the wine industry is no exception. The wine industry is a white male dominated one. The biggest barrier has been finding distributors and getting my wines in high end restaurants and wine bars.
However, as a lawyer, I have been fortunate enough to overcome many of these obstacles by having my law firm partners introduce me to restaurant and bar owners, and that introduction has facilitated me overcoming those hurdles.
I am happy to state that our wines are carried in some of the finest restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also, I believe in hard work and grit, and I never give up. Even though I produce award winning wines, distributors still reject doing business with me.
Recently, one distributor told me he questioned the marketability of one of my varietals. Despite the consistent rejection, I keep pounding the pavement.
Earlier this year, Southern Glazer’s, a premier beverage distributor for world-class wines, picked up our wines for distribution in Florida thanks to the demands of a prominent Florida Restaurant Group.
Due to my persistence, I continue to be picked up by Distributors in Texas and Massachusetts.
What advice do you have for aspiring vintners?
Pursue your passion, educate yourself, work extremely hard, be persistent and be very patient. Never give up and keep climbing and success is yours for the taking.