Pioneering Black Vineyard Owner In Mendocino County Funds Students To Foster Diversity In Wine Industry

by Gee NY

Theodora Lee, the first Black vineyard owner and wine producer in Mendocino County, California, is paving the way for future generations through her generous funding initiatives to increase diversity in the wine industry.

Lee’s journey into the world of wine began at a young age, helping her grandfather on his cattle farm in Texas.

Despite an initial distaste for wine—her first encounter was with the sweet, syrupy Muscadine wine her father made—her perspective shifted in the 1980s when she moved to California and discovered fine wine.

Professionally, Lee pursued a successful career in law, spending over 36 years at the Littler Mendelson, P.C. law firm while dividing her time between Yorkville Highlands, CA; Oakland Hills, CA; and Dallas, TX.

Yet, her passion for wine led her to establish Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville, CA, in 2003.

Since then, the vineyard has flourished, expanding its production from 300 cases to 2,500 cases annually, offering a variety of wines including petite sirah, rosé of petite sirah, pinot noir cuvée, and cuvée blanc.

Reflecting on her journey, Lee said:

“One of the best things about running Theopolis Vineyards is alchemizing my vision into reality, harnessing a dream, delivering a superior product, and bringing pleasure in the bottle to the consumer.”

To deepen her knowledge, Lee took viticulture and enology courses at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) between 2003 and 2006.

She found “The Four Seasons of Growing Grapes” course particularly impactful, as it provided her with crucial insights into growing premium grapes and the intricacies of harvest.

Committed to diversifying the wine industry, Lee created the Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund in UC Davis’s viticulture and enology department in 2022, contributing $70,000 to support students in the field.

This fund awards up to $10,000 to students engaged in viticulture, enology, or vineyard management. The first recipient, Iona Joseph, earned a master’s degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis. To date, three students have benefited from the fund.

“As one of the first African American vineyard owners, I have supported other Black vintners by serving as a mentor, providing resources, and sharing valuable information and advice,” Lee told The Press Democrat.

Lee’s efforts ensure that her legacy as a trailblazer in the wine industry is celebrated and continued by a more diverse and inclusive generation of wine professionals.

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