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Grape Expectations

The most decorated female Olympic swimmer, Natalie Coughlin, brings the same dedication she showed in the pool to her new passion: winemaking
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Natalie Coughlin's approach to her wine label is hands-on. The former Olympic swimmer does everything at the Saint Helena, Calif., winery, from sampling grapes to designing imagery for the bottles. But “hands-on” is literal, too: Now in her fourth year of harvesting and production, Coughlin has learned that her favorite part of winemaking involves physically diving in.

It’s called punching down. While pinot noir grapes are fermenting in four-foot square bins, they must be vigorously stirred down, or punched. Wineries often do this with equipment—both because of the frequency (at least twice every day) and the difficulty (not everyone can stir through four feet of grapes without assistance).

For Coughlin, however, it’s simply a joy—even if she must sanitize her arms from shoulders to fingertips before plunging them in. “You’re kind of swimming through the wine just with your arms,” she says.

“And as a swimmer, of course, I have really long arms. It’s perfect.”

BOTTLE UP Gaderian is a two-person business, so Coughlin has a hand in virtually every aspect, including label design.

BOTTLED UP Gaderian is a two-person business, so Coughlin has a hand in virtually every aspect, including label design. 

That’s just one way the 38-year-old Coughlin’s second career has felt as natural as her first: She earned 12 Olympic medals from 2004 to ’12, tied for the most ever by a female swimmer. Coughlin grew up in Vallejo, close to Napa Valley, and her parents loved going to wine tastings, a habit Natalie picked up after she turned 21. As often as possible, she made time for a glass of wine at night, even with the demanding requirements of her sport.

“I just loved the process of it,” she says. “I loved the entire ritual of drinking wine. Just like I love the ritual of making my coffee every morning, I love having a glass of wine with dinner. And so I saw it as something I could do in moderation while training.”

She didn’t plan for her passion to become a job, though she had always admired the wine career of a close friend, Shaina Harding, who had worked her way from cellar rat to associate winemaker at a local vineyard. When Harding decided she was ready to make her own wine in 2017, she thought she had the ideal business partner in Coughlin.

“I said yes immediately, without knowing what that would mean,” Coughlin says. “That’s kind of my style—and maybe that’s where sports come in. Swimming has given me such confidence that, maybe stupidly, I’ll accept an opportunity like that and figure it out as I go.”

Harding brought technical expertise, and Coughlin had the promotional skills, honed during her career as a world-class athlete. “I’d never managed my personal brand or anything like that,” Harding says, “but Natalie’s been doing that since she was a teenager.” The pair decided to name the label Gaderian Wines, after an Old English word meaning to gather, and off they went.

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DIVING IN Coughlin, who won 12 medals at three Games, now uses her stroking power to punch down grapes.

DIVING IN Coughlin, who won 12 medals at three Games, now uses her stroking power to punch down grapes.

Coughlin enrolled in classes on viticulture and oenology at UC Davis, but her most important lessons came from working alongside Harding—asking her business partner to treat her “like an intern,” she says. “There’s only so much you can read or learn from a book. You really have to learn by doing it, and the wine is—it’s alive. When you’re making it, it’s bubbling, it’s making noises, smells are coming off of it. It’s all so different as the process goes on.”

Years of tastings had made Coughlin a relatively educated drinker, but it wasn’t until she began making wine herself that she learned just how the taste develops over the various stages of production, and how different it might be from one harvest to the next. “Like our 2019 chenin blanc had all these wonderful pineapple notes, just as a result of how things ripened that year and the growing conditions,” Coughlin explains. “And the 2018 had been great, but we’d made it exactly the same, used the same fruit, and it came out differently. That’s kind of the fun of all this.”

The actual production, of course, is only half the battle. The rest comes in packaging and promoting—where the winemakers have tried to position their label as open and approachable, writing the descriptions of their vintages on their website in the language of a friend giving a recommendation. (Of the 2018 Invisible Vineyard chardonnay: “You’ve got to get you some of this! It tastes like a creamsicle melted in your mouth.”)

“I wasn’t quite sure how detail-oriented [Natalie] was going to want to be with the production and the labels and the photographs, but she’s been so into crafting the brand and all those subtle details,” Harding says. “She’s just as fiercely competitive in the wine industry as she was when she was a swimmer.”

Coughlin and Harding remain the only two full-time employees for Gaderian, happy to keep the label relatively small. But 2020, unsurprisingly, has been tricky. Smoke from the California wildfires damaged their fruit, which is sourced from local growers. COVID-19 affected restaurant and retail distribution. For now, most sales of their five varietals, which range from $26 (2019 rosé) to $45 (2018 pinot noir and 2018 Petit Syrah), come from online.

Coughlin also faced a happier sort of obstacle: Pregnant this summer, she could taste the wine that was in production only by sampling it and then spitting it out. (She and her husband, Ethan Hall, had their second child in October.) Now she and Harding hope to pick back up at full speed in 2021.

“It’s just one of my passions,” Coughlin says. “I’m hands-on because I love this.”

Even when it means a shoulder-deep swim into fermenting grapes.