Winemaker and vineyard owner Theodora R. Lee is known as Theo to almost everyone, but in the wine industry, she is Theo-Patra, Queen of the Vineyards, a nickname given to her by Hollywood producers who loved her wine many years ago.
“If you look up Cleopatra’s history, she was born in Greece and went into Egypt,” she says. “I’m a country girl from Texas trying to make her way in a white man’s wine world.”
Lee learned how to ride horses and drive a tractor at eight years old and still considers herself a farmer at heart who fell in love with vineyards. In 2001, she bought 20 acres of land in the Yorkville Highlands of the Anderson Valley almost two hours north of San Francisco, planted her vineyard in 2003, and bottled her first wines in 2014.
In the beginning, she did all of the farming herself. Now she has a vineyard manager, but she is also a full-time employment lawyer. It’s impossible to not feel inspired by her when she says she doesn’t take no for an answer. “I have been blessed, but let me tell you, I have worked my ass off,” she says. “There is a lot that I’m juggling, but I don’t need a lot of sleep. I take care of my 94-year-old mother in Texas. I have a lot of energy and a thirst for life. I’m just able to get it done.”
Much of her own inspiration comes from the Northern California landscape, or as she says, “where the redwoods meet the vineyards” two hours north of San Francisco.
We talked about her career in “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” law and her personal travel recommendations for the Anderson Valley.
In this series, we are spotlighting a destination we love—California—through the experiences of people we admire who call it home.
The Anderson Valley is lesser known than Napa and Sonoma. Can you set the stage for us if someone hasn’t been there?
It sits on Highway 128, which has been named the most beautiful highway in the world. You go through redwoods, mountains, rivers. The Yorkville Highlands, where I am, is actually a separate appellation of the Anderson Valley and is one of the highest elevated growing areas in California. We have all four seasons, which is very unique in California. We are at the headwaters of two watersheds, the Russian River and the Navarro River, so it’s just a beautiful place to create artisan wine. Both the Yorkville Highlands and the Anderson Valley are very special AVAs [American Viticultural Areas]. Most of the winemakers in this area are small producers, small handcrafted wineries.
The Anderson Valley is a beautiful, quiet place here in Mendocino County, closer to the coast, and one of the coolest wine-growing regions in California. [The region is] known for two things: a lot of sparkling wines and late harvest wines. The wines produced in the Anderson Valley tend to be lighter than in the Yorkville Highlands—pinot, chardonnay, and Alsace varietals. The contrast in the growing regions dictate what you should be growing.
You’re a full-time working lawyer, but can people meet you on the weekends? Is Theopolis Vineyards open to the public?
We usually have a huge bottle harvest and release party in September for around 150 people, but it is deferred to 2022. We have a good old-fashioned Texas barbecue with ribs and chicken salad, plus a live band. But if I’m here on the weekend, I do take appointments. I have a funky little tasting room that used to be a car shed.
My home is in Oakland Hills, the Montclair area, across from San Francisco. That’s where I do my shipping. I do a lot of tastings. I’m actually doing one soon for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, for their production company, Westbrook.
I am working now as a lawyer, but my goal is to save enough money in order to really retire, enjoy life, and travel the world. I am about five years away. Everything I own will be paid for, including this farm, my home, my rental properties. I can hopefully live off of my royalties, my rents, the vineyard, and my investments.
What area of law do you practice?
My first answer is “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” law because I am an employment lawyer with the largest firm in the world representing employers in workplace law. So, anything from wage disputes to adverse impact against minorities or women, equal pay issues, and more. I do a lot of diversity and inclusion training, a lot of harassment prevention training. And the reason I call it “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” law is because it’s the workplace but people pull from the world and bring their problems to the workplace.
Aside from your September party, what would you recommend a traveler shouldn’t miss in this area?
Here’s what I would do: Two hours north of San Francisco, you want to find Highway 128 west off of the 101 Highway. Once you get on 128, you take 128 to the coast. Call in advance to make a reservation with us at Theopolis Vineyards for a tasting. Next, I’d go to the Yorkville Market at 26701 Highway 128, kind of at the center of our town. They have groceries and wine tastings daily. Then I would stop at the Yorkville Cellars, which is another cute little winetasting place.
Then I would suggest going to Artevino by Maple Creek Winery—this is where wine meets art. You start as a stranger and you leave as friends. They have some magnificent wines. The proprietor, Tom Rodriguez, is an artist and has designed many wine labels.
Next, go to the Meyer Family Cellars, a wonderful winery with a lot of history. Then you will get into Boonville, the heart of the Anderson Valley. You should go to the Boonville Hotel and have a magnificent lunch because with all this activity, you need to put something in your stomach. It is a family-owned hotel in the heart of Mendocino County. It has magnificent food.
The next thing would be to go to the Italian-style Madrones, a destination in itself with guest quarters, multiple tasting rooms, a restaurant, plus courtyards and beautiful arcades—it’s just outside Philo. If you come to the Anderson Valley, you have to go to the Madrones.
Where do you recommend people stay in the area?
There is Ravenridge Cottages, rentals that are just incredibly beautiful. Everything here is quaint. As you move to the ocean, you’d get to the Boonville Hotel. You can also stay at the Madrones, which I mentioned. If you really want to be in nature, there are a lot of campgrounds in the area.
Mendocino is a place where you can unwind, relax, restore—the breathtaking views of the Mendocino Coast are second to none. We have wild turkeys and pigs, beautiful vegetables, olive trees, vineyards—it’s just a stunningly beautiful place wherever you stay.
Let’s say I want to buy—which I do!—some of your wine as an introduction. Which bottles should I buy?
If you have not tasted our wines, there are three that are unique all the way to me. You’ll never find them anywhere else. It would be the 2018 petite sirah, which got 96 points from Wine Enthusiast.
This year, I made my first blend, and it’s called Theo-Patra’s Cuvée Cerise. It is a Rhône blend, but it’s not your traditional Rhône blend, because it has my petite sirah, my neighbor’s syrah, and mourvèdre.
The third is the Yorkville Highlands Symphony. Symphony is a grape that most people have not heard of, but this is an exquisite dry white wine.
We have a three-bottle minimum because we’re small and it takes manpower to pack one or two bottles. Before last year, we only produced 800 cases, and we’re about 1,200 cases now. That’s small. We’re not the Mondavi family, we’re not the Jackson family. We don’t mass produce and as a result, we get to taste the fruits of our labor and enjoy life.