WOODINVILLE, Wash. — When Mike Metheny, Lisa Swei and a bottle of wine first crossed paths in 2005, the results might be described as perfectly uneventful.
Both were working on Microsoft’s MSN product team in Redmond, Wash. Metheny had been dabbling in home winemaking for a few vintages and gave a bottle to Swei, who had considered getting in on the ground floor of a business outside of the tech industry.
“I really enjoyed the wine, so afterwards I went into Mike’s office, and said, ‘Would you ever want to open a winery one day? Do you want an investor?” Swei asked.
“And he said, ‘Oh no. My wife and I will do something someday, but not right now.”
Metheny now recalls with a grin, “It was a horrible business plan. I tried to talk everyone out of it.”
Despite the rebuff, the pair stayed in touch as both work colleagues and friends, until about six years later, when a similar conversation over dinner led to a completely different response — resulting in Three of Cups Winery in Woodinville.
Business backgrounds connect
Originally from Seattle, Swei worked as a law firm librarian in New York City and Washington, D.C., in what she describes as her “first life,” prior to being hired in 1998 by Microsoft’s legal department. She was employed there for 20 years. She and her husband, Scott Lee, live in Lake Forest Park, a Seattle suburb, and she now works for Oracle Corp.
Metheny was born and raised in Grays Harbor County. He attended university in California, where he worked as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. Boeing hired him in 1990, which brought him and his wife, Debra, back to the Evergreen State. For the past 29 years they’ve lived in Woodinville.
After his time with Boeing and another software company, Metheny was hired by Microsoft in 2001. He and Swei first met on the job in about 2004, and he continued to work there on a contract basis until his eventual departure from the company in 2009. That coincided with his shift from high tech to a career in the wine industry.
Fascination with fermentation leads to wine
In the 1990s, Metheny was “a beer brewer and beer snob,” he says. “I dragged my wife up and down the West Coast to beer festivals. But she always drank wine. So I decided I was also going to make wine in my garage so I could be a ‘good husband’ and she wouldn’t complain
about the house always smelling like fermenting beer,” he said with a smile.
Debra took him to a wine festival in Carnation at the original Herbfarm, an experience that sparked his winemaking career – thanks in part to a now-defunct Woodinville producer.
“She got me to try my first red blend from French Creek Winery,” he said. “That was kind of an eye-opener because I didn’t really like the taste of wines. But I got to talk to winemakers and found out that wine takes more than two weeks to make. I was absolutely fascinated by the whole process and came back to Woodinville and started volunteering at local wineries.”
During the late 2000s, Metheny found himself accepting short-term consulting contracts in high tech, stints that would end in time for him to work crush at wineries, notably for Doug Peterson, then owner/winemaker at Edmonds Winery, and Chris Gorman at Gorman Winery.
In 2009, Metheny attended the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College then studied viticulture through Washington State University. During the program, Metheny was also hired full-time by Constellation Brands and lived out of his RV as a viticulturist for The Hogue Cellars in Prosser.
“I worked for Colin Morrell at Lonesome Spring Ranch Vineyard and Co Dinn, who at the time was the winemaker at Hogue,” Metheny says. “Then, Chris Gorman hired me back as his assistant winemaker in September of 2011 before I finished my internship at Constellation.”
An ideal deck for Three of Cups
Throughout Metheny’s transition into winemaking, he and Swei stayed connected. A dinner in 2011 added a business partnership to their friendship.
“I had given up on owning a winery, but I figured, ‘I’ll take another shot,’ ” Swei said. “This time, he didn’t even hesitate. He said, ‘Yes!’ ”
Metheny points out, “The timing was right. We were more mature — and we had more money,” he added with a laugh.
So in June 2013, they established Three of Cups Winery and completed their first crush that fall with help from Darby English of Darby Wines. About four months later, they moved to their Woodinville warehouse facility and produced wines for two years prior to opening in January 2016.
The name, Three of Cups, comes from a tarot card, which despite its fortune-telling inference, “You take with a grain of salt,” Swei says. “It’s the wine drinking card — with three women holding wine goblets. We liked the message that the card conveyed. It means ‘friends coming together to celebrate,’ which to us is what wine is.”
Stellar sourcing leaves little to chance
For Swei, owning and operating a winery came with more responsibilities than she imagined.
“I originally thought we were going to make a few hundred cases for our friends,” she said. “I had no idea what ‘small production’ meant, and if you look at our warehouse facility today – which produces 2,800 cases annually – it’s quite an operation.”
And even though there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with the end of harvest, the list of responsibilities aren’t left behind when she returns to her regular job.
“We do everything,” she emphasizes. “There’s janitor work, marketing and sales.”
Metheny points out the wines don’t ‘sell themselves,’ but it doesn’t hurt that Three of Cups buys grapes from some of the Northwest’s finest plantings, a list Metheny rattles off faster than an Internet Explorer search ever was.
His thoughtful array of sources runs 10-deep and pulls from a variety of American Viticultural Areas — Lonesome Spring Ranch in the Yakima Valley, Les Collines and Elevation in the Walla Walla Valley, Joseph Christy and Phinny Hill in Horse Heaven Hills, Dry Lake in Lake Chelan, Cameron Ridge north of the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers, Ed Kelly-led Stillwater Creek on the Royal Slope, Red Mountain’s Heart of the Hill and Rivière Galets in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in Oregon. Metheny visits each regularly, logging about 15,000 miles last year.
“Mike has it mapped out — the areas, the soils, the flavor profiles,” Swei says.
Her winemaker adds, “Most importantly, I’m sourcing fruit from the places I think it grows the best.”
Metheny also prefers using “low-impact, traditional French winemaking methods with careful oxygen management. We’re also about high-acid wines; I want our wines to lay down for 10 years. And we always use our best barrels for single varietals.”
Those varieties are primarily native to the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux — Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre alongside Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sèmillon and Sauvignon Blanc to name a few.
Metheny is quick to note that the blending of single varietals from multiple vineyards primarily falls on the palates of Swei and his wife, Debra. And while Debra has a hand in blending, Metheny points out that he and Swei often “see each other more than we see our spouses.”
He adds, “My wife understands my passion.”
Swei agrees that after nine years, her husband, Scott, “knows that’s the way it is during harvest.”
The dedication and commitment of Metheny and Swei to growing a successful business, built on a foundation of friendship and collaboration, has allowed Three of Cups Winery to become just that — producers of exceptional wine, meant to be shared in the company of others.
Three of Cups Winery
18808 142nd Ave. NE, Suite 4A
Woodinville, WA 98072
noon – 5 p.m.
Sundays 1-4 p.m.
or by appointment