Natalie Coughlin: Winemaker, Cookbook Author & 12-Time Olympic Medalist

by SwimSwam Contributors 2

April 20th, 2020 Lifestyle

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2020 Spring edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

By Rachel Lutz

Despite her previous success, Natalie Coughlin isn’t planning on trying to make another Olympic team. But she told SwimSwam Magazine that she deliberately didn’t use the word “retirement” when she stopped competing, just in case.

In the meantime, the time-management skills the 12-time Olympic medalist honed while competing and studying helped her transition to her second career as a cookbook author and winemaker.

“Cook to Thrive: Recipes to Fuel Body and Soul,” Coughlin’s cookbook released in February 2019, has its roots in Instagram. After she joined the social media platform, her feed filled with pictures of food from her swimming travels and her own kitchen.

“I would constantly get people asking when am I going to write a cookbook,” she recalled in a recent interview. “That planted the seed. Then after I stopped competing and training full time, I really thought about it. I wanted to share some of the stories of my travels in swimming and how I ate when I was training for the Olympics and put that into a cookbook form. The cookbook was really a way for me to share some of my favorite recipes and a way to share some stories from travels and training.”

When creating the recipes, Coughlin chose ingredients anyone in the U.S. would be able to find easily, she said. When she cooks for herself, she can pull a rare herb from her backyard garden if needed. She knew it wasn’t that simple for everyone though.

“I am spoiled in that I live in the Bay Area and you don’t have to put much effort into growing your own food,” the “Chopped” and “Dancing with the Stars” alum said. “We have the perfect climate, and, with the exception of pests like rodents, things just grow without any effort. I know that I am very fortunate in that way. I tried not to use ingredients that were too hard to source, like some crazy herb that no one could get in the middle of the country. I would leave that type of stuff out.”

She also realized that testing recipes makes a mess. She didn’t consider the number of dishes that would need to be washed after each test, but she said it was still fun.

The testing phase for the 80-recipe collection nearly stumped Coughlin. She said not every dish was perfect on the first attempt — there were times when she thought, “This isn’t very good, but I don’t want to waste this food, so my husband and I are going to have to choke it down.”

Coughlin wanted to create a cookbook that took readers on the road with her, because she ate in so many places around the globe while she was training and competing.

She found one compelling recipe while competing at a late-fall meet in Bolzano, Italy, but it didn’t make the cut. A local Indian chef created a dish called “pasta Indiana,” which Coughlin described as a unique and delicious curry/pasta. But when she requested the recipe and tried to re-create it, she learned that much of the flair of the original dish was lost in translation. It ultimately didn’t make the book, but she said it’s still in her back pocket to hopefully use at some point.

Her most requested recipe is her Bolognese sauce, which she said is an especially lovely gift for expecting parents.

“That’s in the cookbook, and that’s something that I’ve said to my friends: When I have a friend that’s expecting, I’ll make them a couple quarts of Bolognese to keep in their freezer as, like, a hearty meal for when they can’t cook themselves,” she said.

When she was preparing for the birth of her daughter, Zennie Mae, who arrived in October 2018, Coughlin stocked up on freezer-friendly meals like Bolognese and enchiladas.

“My freezer was very, very well-stocked, and it was shocking how quickly we went through all that food,” she said.

She also made sure to thank her husband’s swim family (he’s a coach) for creating a calendar for each swim parent to sign up to deliver dinner to the new parents.

“That was so thoughtful and really, really appreciated … Honestly, that’s the best thing you could give new parents, a cooked meal. Drop it off, and then take off,” she said with a laugh. “As much as you want people to hang out and see your new baby, you’re so tired that you just want the food and don’t really want to entertain anybody.”

The other half of Coughlin’s second career in the culinary world is her wine label, Gaderian Wines. The name comes from the Old English verb for “to gather,” according to the brand’s site.

Coughlin was exposed to the wonders of wine creation when she was a child. Her parents would enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and often on Sunday afternoons after church the family would visit a winery and her parents would sample some offerings.

“When I turned 21, I was interested in wine, and I wanted to learn more about it,” Coughlin said. “I would get out to Napa Valley and try things. I was willing to ask people for suggestions. Wine could be very intimidating, so it’s totally fine and welcomed when you do a tasting to ask, ‘Hey, what are some of your favorite places?’ That’s really where I got the best recommendations. I learned as I went.”

In her early years of drinking wine, she didn’t appreciate a pinot noir the way she does now. At first she preferred the big reds, but she chooses those less often now. While some people adhere to drinking strictly red or white, Coughlin likes to fluctuate.

“I’m into both for sure,” she said. “Like most people, as the weather gets warmer, I like a crisp white. Then in the winter I like a heavier red. My tastes are very seasonal. I like rosé year-round. I like a little bit of everything. I like to pair it with my meals.”

The Gaderian Wines website has information about reserving a tour and tasting at its facility. Its flagship wines are a chenin blanc and a pinot noir, though it has a cabernet sauvignon that will be ready by 2021 or 2022, Coughlin said.

In choosing to make the chenin blanc, Coughlin and her partner knew they liked floral, dry whites. She said wine drinkers expect to see a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc on a wine list — a chenin blanc, though, typically appears under “others.”

“It pairs really well with a variety of foods,” Coughlin said. “I think young hipsters really like it.”

She said that “the wine lovers also love it because it’s just something a little different,” adding, “I think it’s one of those up-and-coming varietals.”

Coughlin’s winemaking partner oversees the production of about 20 cabernet sauvignons in her other role. So when the pair were brainstorming which red wine they’d like to pursue, pinot noir came to mind. It’s one of the first grapes to be picked in a season and can get done before the flood of cabernets starts to arrive, Coughlin said. It fit in their schedule nicely.

Gaderian Wines is a two-woman operation, and the duo wear many hats. One of Coughlin’s recent projects was to photograph her newest bottles of wine. The best light in her house happened to be in the bathroom, with its white closet doors, so she set up a light and got to work. She processed them in Photoshop herself. And she manages the company website too.

She said her favorite part of making the wine is the “punch-down” process. Once the grapes are destemmed, the “must” — the juices and skins of the grapes — sits in a big bin for 18 days to ferment, as the dense skins and seeds rise to the top and create a sort of cap on the liquid. Two or three times a day over those 18 days, Coughlin, her partner, and a few interns would sterilize their arms from their fingers to their shoulders and punch the cap down.

“It’s the coolest thing,” she said. “I think back to when I was training under Dave Durden and he had us scull so much. I’m sculling through all of this fruit and the juice. It’s so cool. That’s my absolute favorite part of the actual winemaking process.”

It’s not exactly like swimming — the must and the juice are much thicker than pool water. Plus, the wine will stain clothes, so anyone involved should be careful.

For an even more hands-on approach, she delivered her first grapes herself. In their first year in production, Coughlin and her partner had difficulty sourcing a truck to bring the grapes to their facility. So Coughlin made the two-hour white-knuckled drive herself.

“When you have the bins in the back, it’s just one giant blind spot,” she recalled. “It was intimidating. It was terrifying having two tons of chenin blanc on a Mack truck going through the mountains of St. Helena.

“When people think that I’m just putting my name on something and not being hands-on, that’s so wrong. I’m very involved in the process. We’re a two-woman operation: my winemaker and myself.”

It seems to have come full-circle for Coughlin, whose 2020 goals involve growing the brand’s Instagram account. One feature she’s exploring is a “perfect pairings” series.

“I showcase different dishes that go well with the wines,” she said. “So far it’s been really well received. Last week I did our chardonnay paired with oven-roasted Dungeness crab. This week was our pinot noir with a sausage, lentil, and kale soup. I’m trying to share ways to pair the wines with different dishes.”

Since it sounds like Coughlin has so much fun doing what she’s doing now, I wondered: Does it feel like work?

“It’s fun, but it’s still work,” Coughlin answered.

Between taking care of a family, writing a book, and growing a business, she has little time to spare. But with her time-management skills from the pool and her passion for these new ventures, she’s making it look as easy as her famous underwater dolphin kick.

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Rod Barratt
7 months ago

Fantastic to hear this kind of transition and use of the developed drive from sport going into the creative making process. More stories on what post career athletes ar doing out in the world.

Karen Murray Pawlowicz
7 months ago

I’m belong too the wine club, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc amazing. Waiting on my Spring order with the Rose! Can’t wait. So good!