An Olympic Swimmer Dives Into Her Own Wine Business
If you were Natalie Coughlin you might consider an easy retirement. Coughlin is a 12-time Olympic medalist—a record she holds with two other women for the most all-time medals by a female swimmer. Coughlin began competing in the Olympic games in 2004 at the age of 22 when she won her first gold medal. She’s also the first woman to ever swim the 100-meter backstroke in less than one minute, and the first U.S. female athlete in the history of the modern Olympics to win six medals over the course of one Olympiad (the 2008 Beijing games). Coughlin has spent her life as one of the hardest working women in athletics, breaking numerous barriers for her peers all before the age of 35. Now that her time dominating in the pool has come to end, Coughlin hasn’t slowed down one bit—she’s now focusing her energy on the world of food and wine: She recently started her own wine label with longtime friend and winemaker at Hunnicutt wines Shaina Harding, called Gaderian Wines, while writing her own cookbook at the same time.
“I think it all started growing up in the Bay Area just outside Napa Valley, in Valeo,” Coughlin told Food & Wine. “My parents were always into wine. They would have a glass of wine with every meal and they would go wine tasting, so I was exposed to it growing up.”
Harding, whose husband swam with Coughlin’s husband in college, called her friend of over a decade when she decided she wanted to start a small wine label. Coughlin immediately agreed to the venture, diving into the business head first. When the pair began harvesting their Chenin Blanc, for instance, they still didn’t have a driver to help them deliver the grapes. Coughlin took the challenge in stride, stepping behind the wheel and driving the truck to St. Helena through the mountains, overseeing the entire harvesting process once she arrived.
“That was my initiation,” Coughlin says with a laugh. “I want to be really hands on. I love it. If we could get it delivered, that would be great [but] I just did it, and it was a little scary but we made it safely.”
Coughlin says that she’s been letting Harding—vastly more experienced in the wine business—“treat me like an intern,” but the former professional swimmer has always been drawn to wine. She says she had a glass of wine every night, even when she was training (“If you talk to a dietitian, you can fit [wine] into any healthy lifestyle,” she insists). Still, she’s had plenty to learn along the way.
“One of the things that really surprised me is that we pressed the juice after four days of fermenting, and I couldn’t believe how much it tasted like wine,” she explains. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is in incredible.’”
Right now, Coughlin’s favorite part of the winemaking process has been the punch down—though she admits that for more experienced winemakers it can be an arduous process. At Gaderian, the team does it by hand. They sanitize themselves all the way up to the shoulder, and then mash the grapes in a process Coughlin feels is akin to “swimming through grapes and wine."
The devastating fires ripping through California have also been an unexpected hurdle as Coughlin and Harding finalize their first two bottles, a Pinot Noir and a Chenin Blanc.
“During harvest [around September 1], it was 114 degrees for three days. Luckily we harvested right on time. We pulled the fruit before the heat wave. And then the fires happened,” Coughlin recalls. Harding, still on the hook for her work at other vineyards, “worked through it all.”
“I was so nervous for her,” Coughlin admits. “It was a stressful start.”
Still, getting Gaderian off the ground has been more of an exciting experience for Coughlin overall. She recalls holding private tastings with Harding and their husbands, picking out what flavors they liked and hoped to create with their own wine. For the Pinot Noir, they aimed for Burgundian style, with “baking spices” and a “silky flavor.” They preferred that the Chenin Blanc be on more of the drier side, a “refreshing, really dry, citrusy” wine that’s “perfect on a hot summer day,” as Coughlin puts it.
Coughlin expects the Chenin Blanc to be in bottles by February, while the Pinot Noir will take longer, probably making it to the bottle by June. That means you can expect to see Gaderian Wines on sale next summer at the earliest. In the meantime, Coughlin is wrapping up work on her upcoming cookbook.
“I had to travel all over Asia and Europe, and I had some amazing meals,” Coughlin says of the inspiration for the cookbook, which will be released in the Spring of 2019. “Some of the recipes are an homage to those travels and some of [the recipes] I would cook when I was training, and then [others] are what I would eat growing up and on holidays with my family.”
Now that the weather is getting colder, one of Coughlin’s favorite dishes to cook at home is a Bolognese. She also enjoys incorporating chilis, pepper, and garlic, into her recipes, which “brighten up dishes and [add] a nice punch of flavor.” No matter she’s cooking up, Coughlin says her most important goal in the kitchen is to “share my story through food.”