Theodora Lee and Theopolis Vineyards

Theodora Lee Talks about how she came to farm and make wine for her Theopolis Vineyards.

We had a grand time talking with Theodora Lee, owner and winemaker for Theopolis Vineyards at last summer’s Garagiste Festival. (By the way, if you get a chance to go to one, it’s well worth it and a lot of fun). We also loved Theodora’s wines. In fact, she talks about our two faves in the above video – transcription below.

I am Theadora Lee, I am the owner of Theopolis Vineyard, also known as a nickname, Theopatra, Queen of the Vineyards.

Q – How did you get into wines?

Well I moved to California in 1987 to practice law at Littler Mendelson. I’m a girl from Texas. I grew up driving a tractor. I bought a sheep farm in order to plant grapes because I wanted to do farming – grape farming as we would say it in Texas. And in 2012, my buyer – I’d been selling grapes to award-winning wineries since 2006. But in 2012, my buyer rejected my grapes because I had to pull at 24 brix instead of 27 brix

Q – So what did you do with the grapes?

I bottled my first wine in September of 2014 and it’s my petite syrah.

Q – Wow. That’s exciting.

And I got a gold from Sunset Magazine’s International Wine Competition.

Q – That’s impressive. Do you enjoy the experience of farming?

I wanted to be out in the country, getting my hands dirty. So I took a couple courses and U.C. Davis viticulture about the four seasons of growing. So I do the pruning. You know, I do bud break. I do all of the aspects of the farming and that’s what got me into the wine business. Now that I’m bottling the wine, I love the pleasure on folks’ face when they taste the wine. I’ve been specializing in the pleasure of the bottle since I was in high school making Wanda Punch.

Q – Tell us about your rose of petite syrah.

It’s a hundred percent petite syrah. It is rare that any fool would try to make a rose out of petite syrah. Because pettie syrah is one of the darkest, inkiest red grapes around. So, in order to make a rose, you basically have to take the skins off of the grapes early, early in the fermentation process and even after doing that, the rose is not pink. It is a ruby color. It has all the refreshing flavors of a rose. But it drinks like a red wine. It is a very aromatic, refreshingly brilliant rose. But it is extremely dry.

Q – You also make a Symphony wine. Tell us about that.

Symphony was created by Professor Olmo at Davis Viticulture School, and it’s a cross between muscat and grenache gris. And it is a dry version. Most people who make a symphony wine make an off-dry version. But I make all my wines dry. Bone dry. And let me tell you why. I grew up in Texas. If you’ve ever heard of muscadine wine. Muscadine is a grape that grows wild in the South. It is sweet and it tastes like cough syrup, it’s so sweet. And my daddy used to pick it wild on his farm. And he would make bootleg wine. As a little girl, you know, you’d sneak into your father’s cabinet and try to taste it. I tasted that wine and swore I would never drink wine again, ever in my life. Until I came to California and learned about dry wines

Shannon Leary on Being a Winemaking Student

We spoke to Shannon Leary last November. She’s a winemaking student at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, and by now, soon to graduate. So when we heard about the Garagiste Festival‘s new scholarship program for Cal Poly winemaking students, we figured this would be a great opportunity to post our interview with Shannon. The transcript is below.

Anne and Shannon were probably talking over each other, so it didn’t come out in the video, but Shannon did say that the male to female ratio among her classmates is evening out. That’s good news as far as we’re concerned. One other thing – it sounds a little obvious that Shannon would want to be a winemaker. However, what’s she’s talking about is the job title, not the activity. The winemaker is usually the head honcho at a winery, whereas other folks, who probably also have winemaking degrees, are often lab techs, assistant winemakers, etc.

Shannon – It’s exciting. It’s been a great four years and I’m excited to see what’s next.

Q – Have you got any job prospects yet or are you just barely tapping that?

Shannon – I ‘m just finishing up an internship, so I’m going to start looking into different options here in the next few months and see what’s out there.

Q – Is that scary or…

Shannon – Mostly exciting. There’s lots of good opportunity and different areas you can go to and different parts of the industry that you can get involved in.

Q – Is there more equity in the classroom environment between men and women?

Shannon –It’s the industry so far, with female mentors and people who are helping me get started in my career and I’ve been encouraged a lot in the past few years with my career. So I’m looking forward to it.

Q – Why do you think that is? That we’re finally starting to see that even out?

Shannon – I think women bring a lot of unique things to the table. In any career, for that matter. But just a different perspective, different capabilities. And I think it’s a great industry for everyone to be involved in. Very passionate, very charismatic. And I think anyone wants to be involved with that.

Q- What makes for a good wine education program in today’s industry?

Shannon – One of the things that I really love about Cal Poly is the hands on experience that you get. So we have internships that are part of our curriculum. Labs. All of our classes are based on practical winemaking. Learning how to get out there and be a part of the industry. So when we graduate, we’re ready to get going. And that’s what I really love about Cal Poly. Each program brings unique things to the table. But I’ve loved my experiences so far. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had great professors and classmates.

Q – What got you interested in wine age 21?

Shannon –Um, I did not come from a winemaking family at all. What I was looking for in a career was an industry where there was people I was going to like to work with, and something new every year, and challenging. And the wine industry definitely has that. So it’s an ever-changing career, and like I said, the people are great to be around. Very warm, friendly people who are willing to help and everyone just wants to elevate the industry.

Q – And what are your goals?

Shannon –My goals. I’d love to be a winemaker, have my own label someday. I’m not sure exactly where that’s going to take me in the next few years here, but I’m open to the possibilities. We’ll see where it goes.

Q – All right.

Judy Starr on Growing Grapes

We met grape grower Judy Starr late last fall at the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival and really enjoyed talking to her about how she got started growing grapes. So fast forward to early this month, and we’re doing a bus tour of the Paso Robles region with the Cellarmasters home winemaking club. Our last stop was Starr Ranch Vineyard and Winery. Starr was not only there, she stayed open late for us, then poured while we sat around tables in her winery yard, overlooking the vines, as a soft breeze rustled the trees above us. One of our friends called it our nap for the day, it was so relaxing. And the wine was even more amazing. So amazing Anne blew the wine budget and then some buying several bottles.

So we highly recommend getting a glass of nice, crisp rose, then hauling it and your laptop outside under a tree somewhere and watching the below video. There’s a transcription underneath, too. Oh, and one quick note – most winemakers enjoy chatting with people and pouring their wines, but they really don’t like the sales part of it.

Judy Starr:

I began life 14 years ago as a vineyard. When I got here, I did not expect to have a label called Starr Ranch. I just wanted to grow fruit.

So, that’s where I started and I now know that’s a good place to start, because you’re sure of your grape supply and the quality of it from the beginning. So after I’d done that for a few years, I started my own little label. Because, after all, you’ve nurtured these grapes from the beginning, and then you take the next step.

Q – How did you start growing grapes?

Interesting question. Actually, it was sort of a… It wasn’t a mid-life crisis kind of a thing. But my children grew up and they did what they were supposed to do. They left home and got jobs. And so then I decided I had enough time and energy to do something interesting. And I wanted to grow something. I didn’t know at that point what it would be. I looked around for about for about four or five years and decided it would be wine grapes. Once I got to wine grapes, Paso [Robles] was pretty easy. It was 14 years ago and there were 33 wineries.

Q – Do you enjoy selling your wines?

Actually, I do enjoy selling the wine. Because it is an expression of what I put my time and energy into. I’m not the winemaker, as such, except if you believe that the wine is made in the vineyard. That’s my job. I care a lot about farming the fruit and producing excellent product. So if you have that, then the winemaking piece of it is easy. So I think for me, yes, the most fun is… is… seeing harvest every year. You put a lot of time and energy into it. A lot of work, a lot of hand work, a lot of people. Even when harvest approaches, you get this sense of anticipation that permeates everything. And it’s a very intangible sort of thing, but it’s certainly there when you farm.

Depending on where you live, of course, you can buy Starr’s wines from her website. And if you’re going to be in Los Angeles on July 11, you can go to the L.A. Garagiste Festival at the Wiltern Theatre

Nicole Pope Talks Oxidation and Pinot Noir

It’s another winemaker video – this time featuring Nicole Pope, winemaker for Stolo Family Vineyards, where she works with her husband, Lucas Pope, who is the vineyard consultant for the company, located in Cambria, California. Our conversation with Ms. Pope kind of went all over the place, but we had a grand time and hope you do, too.

We’re including the transcription from the video because we totally get that not everyone can or wants to sit through a video.
I’m Nicole Pope, with Stolo Family Vineyards
Q- How long have you been there?
Three years now?
Q- How long have you been making wine?
Almost 10 years?
Q- How prominent were women in the industry when you started?
There were some women who had started in the ‘80s, as like… There were not very many women. When I came along, I went to Cal Poly and I studied biology. The viticulture program was just starting out. I actually ended up working, the first winery that I worked for was run by a woman. She was the head winemaker and the CEO
Q (Turns out that was not just any woman…) You worked with Eileen Crane at Domaine Carneros?
She’s a very powerful woman. And she really took… She started the winery there. So it was really interesting to learn from her. She knows everything about sparkling wine. And just to see how she runs the place. I never felt like “I’m a girl, I can’t, I don’t do something. We were all… It didn’t matter.
Q- You say you like working with Pinot Noir. Everybody calls it the heartbreak grape, but
Yeah. It’s kind of what I started out working with. Cool climate grapes. I started out working in Carneros and Arroyo Grande Valley, Edna Valley, and now out in Cambria. So Pinot Noir grows best out there in the fog. Once you figure out how to work with it and you just understand oxidation and things like that and preventing it.
Q What is oxidation?
Wine can be oxidized very easily and it kind of depends on the stage. When it’s fermenting, it needs oxygen. The yeast need oxygen to grow healthily and convert sugar to alcohol. But once wine is in the aging process, once it’s in barrel, you want to keep it topped up [i.e. keeping the container full]. You don’t want a lot of head space. When you’re racking {moving the wine from one container to another to get rid of schmutz and other icky stuff], you don’t want to be mixing in a lot of air. And certain varieties can use some, but pinot noir usually can’t. So you want to prevent oxidation because it just oxidizes quicker. And you get the flavors of oxidation. It just becomes more pruney or even like bruised apple, those kind of flavors. And you ruin the freshness of the wine.