A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Lisa Swei, Co-owner & wearer of many hats
Mike Metheny, Co-owner & winemaker
As I'm fond of saying, a day without learning is a day wasted. Fortunately, writing this Winelight on Three of Cups Winery in Washington State more than fit the bill. Did you know "Three of Cups" is a card in a Tarot deck? Do you actually know what Tarot is? Do you want to know why Lisa Swei and Mike Metheny, co-owners of Three of Cups Winery, chose this card to represent their wine journey and their incredible wines? Of course you do! Don't waste your day, dear reader. Read on and learn.
This story begins with a pizza.
As so many good stories—and evenings. We go back, back, WAY back, to when Lisa and Mike were two friends working in the tech industry. Nothing monumental, just Mike bringing Lisa a bottle of wine that he made in his garage and instructing her to drink it with some pizza.
Lisa, being a rational person, didn’t need to be told twice to eat a pizza and drink some wine, so that’s what she did. And being rational, she was also like, what are you doing making wine in your garage? I imagine Mike shrugging nonchalantly, oh I just dabble, my wife and I might start a winery someday, no big deal.
Well actually, this story begins with a bad batch of Pinot Noir.
Which was absolutely NOT a Three of Cups wine. No, this particular bad Pinot came a few years after the pizza, but early enough that Lisa and Mike were still working in the tech industry and Three of Cups was just a twinkle in their eyes. One night, after having dinner, the two friends were drinking brandy that Mike had made from that fateful bad batch of Pinot when Lisa asked him if he still wanted to start a winery.
Funny she should ask, because yes, he did.
A love of anything fermented.
That’s Mike, and he said that to me almost verbatim. Probably doesn’t come as a surprise given that the first few paragraphs of this story involve a wine and a brandy, each made by Mike. Actually, Mike launched himself into the wine world before it was even on Lisa’s radar; he enrolled in viticulture coursework in 2006 and bounced around as a winery volunteer for years after that just to learn more about wine.
One of the most interesting things he learned in that time was that many of the winemakers in the region weren’t technically “educated,” meaning with fancy certificates or degrees. They were just in the family wine business, and that was enough. (Which, if you're familiar with the literary technique of "foreshadowing," is actually quite a skillful demonstration thereof.)
Mike was hooked except for one thing: after rising so high in the tech world, he wasn't sure about stepping back down to assistant level in his 40s. Lisa’s proposal couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous moment, and it solved everything—helped greatly by the fact that they had been friends for 20 years, and he trusted their partnership.
Start small, they said. We’ll stay small, they said. Right.
I gently tease, but in fairness to them, Lisa and Mike DID start small, following a rule of winemaking that I was completely unaware of. That’s the two-year philosophy: make wine for at least two years before trying to sell it. At least that’s the rule if you’re starting your own wine from the ground up—and that’s exactly what Lisa and Mike wanted to do.
See, they didn’t want to buy someone else’s wine and slap their own label on it. They wanted this wine to be theirs from beginning to end—and that meant if they messed up, customers would be drinking their mistakes. I know I’m a big nerd for saying this, but I find that kind of ownership so inspiring and so refreshing.
Their first “crush” (a wine industry term referring generally to harvest season, or more specifically to the actual picking and crushing of the grapes) was at a guest winery before they found their own location, where they restarted their two-year clock. In the spirit of “small,” their original plan was to do five kinds of wine and leave it at that. Fortunately for all of us wine lovers, that quickly went out the window and they expanded their repertoire considerably.
Actually, how do you define “small”?
The thing is, for all they didn’t stay small in terms of their ambitions and wine production, they actually DID stay incredibly small in terms of operations. How small? Scroll back up to the top of this page and you’re looking at it: Mike and Lisa.
Well, except when it comes time to blend the wine, and that's when their third enters the picture. Mike’s wife Deb is also a major player in their wine game when it comes to blending, thanks to her killer palette. (Lisa’s palette is also nothing to sneeze at, but Mike says he ruined his due to years of spicy food.) Through the alchemy of three, they’re able to create the blends that make Three of Cups wine so distinctive.
Otherwise though, Lisa and Mike are on their own, and they HUSTLE. They regularly work until the early morning hours, or they’re up at 2 am to pick up grapes. Crush time means all-nighters and heavy lifting, and illness/injury is simply not allowed. Mike also does a huge amount of mechanical and repair work around the winery, which has a resulting huge impact on their bottom line.
The secrets to their success (it’s ok, they gave me permission to tell).
Sometimes you have to laugh at how simple these “secrets” are, because for Lisa and Mike, here’s what it really boils down to: hard work, organization, budgeting, relationships, and adaptability. Shocking, right? There’s nothing complicated about it, although it’s definitely not easy.
We’ve covered hard work and budget, for the most part, with one playing directly into another—Mike and Lisa put in a huge amount of their own sweat and time to make their budget balance. Organization also goes hand in hand with that. These things are relatively straightforward, at the end of the day.
If there’s a secret sauce that many can’t seem to replicate, it’s that delicate blend of relationship nurturing and adaptability. Lisa and Mike work HARD to cultivate and maintain relationships with the local grape growers, suppliers, and customers, and those relationships have seen them through recent difficult times with the pandemic and the Western wildfires.
Similarly, they’ve had the foresight and intelligence to anticipate challenges and adapt to meet them. The big thing here is staying competitive: with over 1000 wineries in Washington, it can be hard for a small winery to stand out, but Mike and Lisa have found the ideal balance between meeting customer desires and staying true to themselves. More recently in the chaos of the pandemic, they’ve been able to nurture existing relationships and explore new sales avenues—notably social media and online presence, including virtual tastings—to keep their business afloat when so many have gone under.
Where does Tarot fit in?
Ah, you thought I forgot. Never fear!
Since a day without learning is a day wasted, let me very briefly tell you what I learned about Tarot. Contrary to what I believed, Tarot is NOT some mythical tool method of fortune-telling (at least, it’s not supposed to be). Tarot’s primary purpose is to facilitate open conversation between the subject and the card reader, with the cards serving as a “mirror” of the subject. Tarot should serve as a journey of exploration of the self, with the goal being understanding and clarity.
In Tarot, the Three of Cups card is part of the “Minor Arcana” portion of the deck, which represents our day-to-day lives and experiences. It struck me that this is very similar to wine, as it’s been described to me by so many of our Sip Wines partners: every bottle of wine represents a beautiful moment, and our experience of wine is very much IN the moment. Tasting a wine connects us to a particular point in time, both for the wine and for ourselves.
Then there’s the meaning of Three of Cups: the Minor Arcana card of celebration. Happy times, reunions, friendship, joy. All wonderful things that we experience in a moment... like wine.
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I’ll end with this: taste a bottle of Three of Cups wine and then reflect on the Tarot meaning. This wine is utterly unique, and it will make that moment of tasting stand out. Three of Cups wine truly is a celebration of the joy and passion that Mike and Lisa bring to their wine. As you drink it, remember to enjoy the moment, and celebrate.