A Thirst for Life: Chatting with Theo Lee

“You have my permission to record because California is a two-party consent state,” Theodora “Theo” Lee tells me, laughing, after I ask her if I may record our interview. I’m trailing her as we make our way into her modest Yorkville Highlands home where she’s come to care for her Petite Sirah vineyard this weekend. She maintains another home in the San Francisco Bay Area where, during the week, she is a Senior Partner and very successful trial lawyer at Littler Mendelson.

I’m struggling to keep up with Lee, who’s a few years my senior but has energy to spare. I was instructed to arrive early as she has a big day planned for us. After a morning tasting, we’ll be heading off to a neighborhood potluck at mid-day, and a bit later I’ll be shadowing her as she hosts a few retailers from out of town.

For now, though, Lee – dressed in a checkered, short-sleeved work shirt and work pants dusty from a busy morning in the vineyard – is eager to share her jewel-in-the-crown wine with me, her estate-grown Petite Sirah, which she bottles under her Theopolis Vineyards label.

This is my first time exploring the Yorkville Highlands appellation. When I visit with winemakers, typically they’ll provide driving directions in advance, and add that upon arrival I’ll see their winery sign and immediately know where to turn. In Lee’s case, she instructs me to look for a little blue address sign with some plants painted on it.

The Yorkville Highlands appellation is located in Mendocino County and consists of about 40,000 acres, straddling the Anderson Valley to the northwest and Alexander Valley to the southwest. That may sound like a lot of land, but only about 450 of those acres are planted to wine grapes. It’s a fairly recent appellation, too, relatively speaking; AVA status was granted in 1998. Growth in this region has been slow these past 18 years. There are only a handful of wineries hidden in this mountainous region. Though various varieties are grown here – including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel – I’m most attracted to its Petite Sirah, for which this area seems ideally suited, due to its hot days, positively frigid nights, gravelly and clay loams, and its high elevation.

During the week, Lee may litigate upon everything from wrongful termination and employment discrimination to race discrimination as a Labor Employment law attorney, but she’s equally as comfortable hopping on her tractor and working her vineyard and small orchard.  Next year will be her 30th anniversary as an attorney. A 1987 University of Texas Law School graduate, she has practiced only Labor Employment Law her entire career because, as she says, “It’s sex, drugs, rock and roll, and hourly wages,” laughing heartily and openly. “You can’t open a paper without seeing a lawsuit about misclassification or off-the-clock work. I enjoy it, but obviously wine is my passion.”

It was Lee’s mentors and colleagues in law who first introduced her to the world of fine wine.  “I grew up in the South, in Texas, on a farm. We had wild Muscadine grapes growing there, and my father used to make home brew. Have you ever had Muscadine? It’s so sweet. It tastes like cough syrup. It’s so nasty! I thought that’s what wine tasted like, so I didn’t drink wine until I moved to California in the ’80s and learned about fine wines.”

Lee learned about wine as a young associate from her colleagues, and, in particular, from her mentor at Littler Mendelson, Barbara Oddone. Oddone, who is now retired, had a home and vineyard in Healdsburg at the time that Lee visited often. Back when she was starting out in law “you didn’t have faxes and emails and all of these other ways to communicate. Basically, if you had a brief due, if you got it done on a Saturday and it was due on a Monday, you drove it to the partner’s house. So, I would go to Healdsburg to deliver briefs for Barbara to review for the following Monday, and she’d invite me to stay for dinner and we would drink wine from her vineyard. I would walk the vineyard, because I’m really an outdoors person. I was driving a tractor by the time I was eight years old.  I fell in love with the wine lifestyle – great wine, great food and being out in the vineyard. Other partners and associates had places in Oakville and Calistoga, so it from them and Barbara that I started to appreciate wine.”

Lee soon began to envision owning her own little vineyard. She is quick to point out that she wanted to be a grower, first and foremost, but land in the Napa Valley, on an associate’s salary, was an impossibility. Her mentors suggested that she look into Lake County and Mendocino County. “In 2001, I finally felt like I could take some equity out of my house and put it into buying a piece of land.  I felt confident I could do this. I kind of knew I liked Mendocino. It’s a beautiful place. I used to visit the coast there. Alice Walker, the author, whom I knew because she went to Spelman [a historically African-American college in Atlanta, Georgia from which Lee graduated], had a place in Mendocino, and we have mutual friends. She lives further out near Boonville, so I looked at properties up there, but then I saw this property in Yorkville.”

The land itself was mostly fallow meadow, redwoods and firs. The 20-acre property came with two sheep and eight chickens, and a house that was in ill-repair. “It was a nightmare. The lady I bought it from was an English teacher from London, and she only spent half of each year here. The room we’re in now [the dining room] was her library. There were shelves on all the walls, floor to ceiling. It had been badly neglected. While she was in England, cats roamed this house and I’m allergic to cats, so I had to get people who clean baseboards and floorboards to come in and take up everything and clean it all up.” She gave the sheep away but kept the chickens. “I knew how to raise chickens and they laid beautiful eggs, but then a fox came one night and killed them all.”