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(Part 1 of 2) Our Conversation with Theodora Lee, Founder of Theopolis Vineyards

(Part 1 of 2) Our Conversation with Theodora Lee, Founder of Theopolis Vineyards

This is Part One of our two-part interview with vintner/lawyer/rockstar Theodora Lee, the Founder and Owner of Theopolis Vineyards. 

Melier
Tell us who you are and a little bit more about your winery and your background.

Theodora
I'm Theodora Lee, also known as Theopatra, Queen of the Vineyards. I'm a native Texan, born and raised in Dallas, Texas. I still practice law full-time as a partner at Littler Mendelson. We are the world's largest labor and employment firm. But my passion is wine. If you can see behind me, I have a photo of Theopolis Vineyards which I planted it with my own two hands. 

We're out in the country where life is good. It snowed at Theopolis Vineyards a couple of weeks ago. And this is really only the second time since I've owned it in 20 years that it has snowed. And this was about three to four feet. If you'd like, I can send you pictures. Fortunately for the grapes, they were dormant, so the snow did not have a negative impact.

Melier
People are already probably wondering, how did a Texan get in the wine business? A lawyer, specifically.

Theodora
Well, being a lawyer and getting in the wine business is a lot more common than being a Texan and getting in the wine business. But they actually kind of work together because I grew up in Texas and I learned to drive on a tractor at the age of eight. My parents had been married 11 years before I was born and I'm their only child. I was my daddy's son and my mother's daughter. She taught me how to play the piano, do ballet, all of the feminine things. Then my father taught me how to rope cattle, shoot guns, and build fences, and to actually work with a tractor.

Fast forward to the 80s, I graduated from the University of Texas Law School. I was recruited by Littler Mendelson to work out of the San Francisco office. Well, back in the 80s, we didn't have fax, emails, all the electronic means to communicate and collaborate on paper. So if you were working on a brief for a partner and they happened to be in Sonoma or Napa at their weekend home, you drove that brief to their home. Some of them would invite me to have dinner and of course, they would offer me wine. I said, no, give me some Wild Turkey or some Jack Daniels because I don't drink wine.

And finally my law firm mentor, Barbara, asked me, well, "why don't you drink wine"? I told her I didn't like wine. And that as a precocious little child, I would see the adults playing dominoes or cards and drinking wine. And I first thought, "oh my God, I wanna taste that". 
Well, I snuck in the cupboard, tasted that Muscadine and it was the nastiest thing I've ever tasted in my life. And I said, if this is wine, I want nothing to do with it. 

So Barbara and her husband Pierre, who had this beautiful vineyard in Healdsburg. They grew Zinfandel and they grew Cab. Of course, they offered me Cab, and I didn't like it. And each time I would take a break from work, they would invite me for dinner and offer me a different wine. Finally, they gave me a glass of Chardonnay. A buttery, oaky Chardonnay that apparently fit well with the chicken dish they had prepared. And I liked it! I began to have an appreciation for wine and eventually began to also enjoy Cabernet and Zinfandel.


Melier
So it was an acquired taste, but you needed the right wine first.

Theodora
Yes, but the thing that got me was not the wine. It was that Pierre let me drive that tractor through the vineyards. That's when I was sold. Back in the 80s, I said, "Oh my God, I want to be a great farmer." I didn't even know it was called a vineyard. I just had no clue. But if I could drive my tractor through a vineyard, I wanted that. As kid growing up, my father was a superintendent of schools, and we would go out to the country every weekend and ride horses and rope cattle and do different farm activities. I loved being outside. And here was a way that I could be outside, get out of San Francisco, be in the country. 

But land in California ain't cheap. So when I made partner in 1995 I was also able to take money out of my home and buy 20 acres in the Yorkville Highlands of Anderson Valley. That's how I got started. And all I really wanted to do was be a gentle woman farmer on my tractor, not make wine. So I sold my grapes to other wineries. The beautiful thing is my first harvest in 2006, I sold my grapes to a guy by the name of Mike Officer at Carlisle. He's like this cult winemaker. If you look at any of the winemaking movies, he's usually profiled in some way. He's so popular that people sign up to be on his mailing list just to get access to the waiting list for his wine club. I wanted to be like Mike Officer.


Melier
How did that lead to you making wine?

Theodora
Mike bought my Petite Sirah from the 2006 harvest. And Robert Parker, the wine critic, gave that wine a 96 out of 100. That's how I started in the wine business. Fast forward to 2012, and I found a new grape buyer, which was fortunate because we'd just gone through the Great Recession and I had lost my shirt in real estate. I picked the grapes myself that year, but the weather didn't cooperate and we pulled the grapes before they were pruned. They they came in at 21 brix - that's the sugar level. So I delivered 8 to 10 tons of grapes to the buyer, which we rejected.

Now I had 8 to 10 tons on rejected grapes on the back of a truck and I didn't know what to do. So I found a neighbor to custom crush because I had to crush them within 24 hours or they would be no good. And then I had a choice: make grape juice or make wine. When I found out how much money it would cost to make wine, I fell out of my seat, because I had just lost my shirt in real estate. But I got a deal. One of my neighbors said, “I will bottle the wine for you if you give me half of the fruit to bottle under my own label. And then I can sell it under my label and get paid for making your wine.” So that's what I did. And then I had from 2012 to 2014 to save money for caps, bottles, and labels. That 2012 vintage Petite Sirah won gold at a major wine competition, even though it was the first time that I bottled commercially. The rest is history.

Melier
How do you balance the demands of running a winery with your law practice and caring for your mother?

Theodora
Well, my first priority is my mother. I need the law and I need the wine and a little real estate to help create cash flow to pay six full-time caregivers who provide 24-7 care to my mom in her own home. I made a promise to both my parents that as long as I was able, I would work however many jobs necessary to keep them in their home where they're comfortable and familiar with their own surroundings. And in 2020, mother was doing fine up until then, but she got a serious infection and ended up in the hospital in the middle of COVID. And when she came out of the hospital, she had very limited mobility. Her Alzheimer's had become worse, and I had to bring in caregivers. The first three months, I was the night caregiver. It nearly killed me, but I got a night lady, and then I had a lady from the church, and now we have six ladies working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Melier
Wow, that's pretty incredible. And how have you managed to - I don't know exactly what the old joke is - but something like how do you end up with a million dollars? You start with two million and go into the wine industry. How have you navigated that reality?

Theodora
Well, if you want to be a millionaire, you start with a billion and go into the wine industry. That's how you end up with a million. I don't have a million dollars to spare. I've financed this endeavor myself. A lot of brands have gotten loans and gotten grants and have raised money, GoFundMe's, whatever, but I am fairly frugal. I drive a 1995 Lexus. I live in the same house that I've lived in for almost 30 years. I don't shop. I don't spend money. I don't have gadgets. So the money that I earn goes into Theopolis Vineyards. And the money that we get from sales goes back into Theopolis Vineyards. I practice law to help cover my living expenses and my mother's living expenses. Thank the Lord, the real estate market has turned around, so I have cash flowing in on some of my homes.

Melier
It sounds like it’s a lifestyle that you have to truly dedicate yourself to living.

Theodora
I just wake up every morning with as much energy as I can. Some days I spend 12 hours practicing law. Other days I spend 6 hours dealing with the wine business. Friday of last week when I went down to pour at the World of Pinot, I took Friday off of law. So I didn't bill any hours, but I made a lot of wine contacts. And so fortunately, I'm able to juggle both law, caregiving, wine, and real estate because I do what I need to do when I need to do it. And if it requires that I work 16 hours a day, I do it

Melier
How do you do that and still have a personal life? 

Theodora
Well, my personal life has definitely suffered. I ended a 16-year relationship because I never had time for it. I'm single, so if anybody wants to join my wine family and make a life of wine, give me a call. That aside, my life is just going to be busy. When I'm taking care of my mother, I'm on the phone with clients. Then I'm doing a wine tasting. If I'm taking a deposition one day, I may have a wine tasting that night. If I have a tenant telling me they need to get something fixed, I'm calling the contractor at the same time I'm shooting an email to a winery client. So I just multitask and do the best I can.

Melier
We’ll let you know if we get any matchmaking requests. But I bet it’s hard to keep up with you. When I was talking to Ashanti from your team during that last tasting we hosted with her, she was commenting about how you're, I don't know what, 30 years older than her, yet she has trouble keeping up with you when you're running around during your 16-hour days. It's pretty amazing.

Theodora
Yeah, she is my wine daughter and Ashanti is wonderful. She has been with me since I was forced to bottle wine in 2014. A legal client introduced us because she had expressed some interest in wine marketing. And Marcy Rubin, who had been one of the first lawyers for Wells Fargo who gave me work back when I was starting out, introduced us. I took her to a wine tasting in Los Angeles that January and she's been with me ever since. Now she's a millennial, so she doesn't wanna work 60 to 70 hours a week. So when she quit her day job, she said, I thought she'd work 40 hours for me. She said, oh no, I don't wanna work more than 20 hours a week. But I finally convinced her, January of 2023, to come on board full time.

Melier
Yes, she mentioned that. But it's a long game, right? You gotta play that, but she's excited. She loves working with you, it's pretty awesome to see. She's great to work with as well.


Theodora
All of her clients love her, and she's just a lot of fun. She's great. The one thing I love about Ashanti is she can execute whatever. People think we're much larger than we are, but we take what we have and make it the best that we can.

Part Two of this conversation is available to read here.

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