Women and Winemaking-A Constellation of Stars Creating Stellar Wine

Attorney Theodora Lee-Owner of Theopolis Vineyards
Attorney Theodora Lee-Owner of Theopolis Vineyards

By: Cheryl Gray

Women have been an integral part of winemaking since the days of ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. Today, they own vineyards and wineries and have a hand in virtually all aspects of creating wines that earn accolades and appease palates around the world. 

  Among them is Attorney Theodora Lee, a senior partner in a San Francisco law firm who never imagined herself becoming a vineyard owner and winemaker. Lee’s groundbreaking step toward establishing Theopolis Vineyards came in 2003 when she bought several acres of land in the Yorkville Highlands region of Anderson Valley, a Northern California wine-growing region about two hours outside San Francisco. Anderson Valley is a designated AVA (American Viticultural Area) known largely for producing pinot noir and sparkling wines.

  Lee was no stranger to farming since she grew up around farms in her native Texas. As a seasoned litigator and trial lawyer, she also knew that she had to equip herself with knowledge about viticulture, which she did at UC Davis. However, Lee hadn’t planned on going solo when the time came for her first grape harvest, one that would result in her first award-winning wine.

  “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 winemaker will tell you, great wine starts in the vineyard.

  Then, in 2012, an ill-timed rain fell during harvest, and I rushed to pick my grapes at 22 brix. The buyer at that time had contracted for grapes at 25 brix, so they rejected the entire lot – 10 tons of fruit. 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.”

  Lee’s pivot to a custom crush led to Theopolis Vineyards’ award-winning 2012 Estate Grown Petite Sirah, which earned a gold medal at an international wine competition. Her moniker in the wine industry is “Theo-Patra, Queen in the Vineyards,” part of which is a throwback to her pledge name as a Delta Sigma Theta Sorority member.

  “Now that I have a wine brand, the greatest motivator for me is to produce premium wine which is second to none. I love to bring folks pleasure in the bottle, and it is very important that I produce the best product to bring to the marketplace.”

  Theopolis Vineyards consistently rakes in awards, with 90 percent of its products sold directly to consumers. Lee says that as a small craft winery, a three-tier distribution system doesn’t make economic sense for her company. Instead, Theopolis Vineyards focuses on direct shipping to a customer base stretching across the United States and, more recently, Belize. Lee adds that the company has a few distributors focusing on its handcrafted products, and those relationships have worked well. The wine club approach, however, has been spot on. 

  Lee’s advice to other women who want to enter the world of winemaking is straightforward.

  “For anyone thinking about entering the viticulture industry, I suggest that you find your passion.   There are all aspects, from vineyard management to enology, business management, marketing, sales and wine education. So, my slice of advice: ‘Pursue your passion, educate yourself, work extremely hard, be persistent and be very patient, but never give up and keep climbing, then success is yours for the taking.”

  Cathy Corison, founding partner of Corison Winery in California’s Napa Valley, knows a thing or two about that advice. Corison took a career pivot of sorts and beat the odds. Corison’s journey to winemaking began in college when, as a biology major, she found herself drawn to the science of winemaking. A master’s degree in enology, followed by multiple opportunities to get hands-on experience, led to Corison finally making her breakthrough, establishing Corison Winery in 1987. She did it by purchasing grapes grown in the region between Rutherford and St. Helena, an area known for prime benchland vineyards. Purchasing barrels followed, and then, to produce the wine, Corison had to depend on vacant space in other wineries to create her first products. All the while, she was still moonlighting on other winery and vineyard jobs. 

  Corison Winery finally got its own estate vineyard in 1995 when the company bought the former Kronos Vineyard, which had operated as a farm for over a century. Corison would use part of the land purchase to build a winery in 1999, a Victorian-style winery barn structure designed by William Martin, an architect. In 2015, Corison Winery purchased the nearby Sunbasket Vineyard after sourcing grapes from it for more than 25 years. 

  Together with her husband and business partner, William Martin, Corison has established a reputation for the winery by producing cabernet sauvignons that are marketed as globally recognized wines noted for their distinctive taste, longevity and consistency. The majority of sales come through the winery’s wine club, visitors to the winery and online purchases, resulting in exports to 18 countries and a presence in several U.S. markets.

  Corison says her motivation is driven by a personal devotion to creating good products.

  “Wine is alive and grounds us. The best part is sharing it with friends, family and guests to the winery. I love the great wines of the world, and it is so gratifying to be a part of that.”

  Corison shares her advice to women who want to enter the viticulture industry. 

  “First, you need to be passionate about wine because this is a very difficult business. Then be prepared and start walking. Persistence and a long view will be required.”

  Persistence and the long view paid off for St. Clair Brown Winery and Brewery, a self-described boutique urban winery and nano-brewery headquartered in the city of Napa, California. What used to be a deserted lot and former machine shop is now production central for hand-bottled craft wines and beers.

  Longtime friends Elaine St. Claire and Laina Brown worked together at other wineries for the better part of 18 years before they took the leap to open the winery portion of their business in 2010, followed by the companion nano-brewery in 2018. St. Clair is the winemaker and brewmaster. Brown serves as the company’s president. 

  According to Brown, the duo’s years of experience at larger wineries gave them real motivation to put wines on the market that would distinguish their products from the rest. The two used that motivation to sit down and make a list of everything they wanted their own venture to encompass.

  “After working in the industry for over 10 years, 20 years for Elaine, we came to a point in      our careers where we just wanted to create wines that were crafted with respect, applying the attention to detail and a level of quality that we were truly proud of and then to share them with our community. Our vision was to make our products for the people around us and for the rest   of the wine industry out of honor for what could be created – not just create another brand wrestling for market share.”

  St. Clair got her wish by being part of creating the best of both worlds. As a UC Davis graduate and an award-winning winemaker and brewmaster, St. Clair had always wanted an opportunity to make both wine and beer, putting to use 30 years of experience in making wines in Napa Valley and a decade more as a head brewer.

  For Brown, experience as a wine industry executive came into play when deciding how to create what she describes as a place where craft wine and beer could be showcased in an inviting space. Brown describes the many different facets of how women can enter the winemaking space.

  “The wine industry is very diverse and creative. My advice is to think of what area speaks         to you and how you want to live. The viticultural side of the industry is the establishing and farming of vineyards. If you are more outgoing, you may prefer a career in sales and marketing or hospitality. There are also many fields that support the industry, which are as wide ranging as technology, accounting and culinary. This industry attracts a lot of talented people with different personality types who work hard and enjoy a great lifestyle. More and more women are working in the wine industry, and there is a place for everyone.”

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