Q+A with Olympic Swimming Medalist Natalie Coughlin | Wine Enthusiast
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Q+A with Olympic Swimming Medalist Natalie Coughlin

Did growing up in Northern California influence your love of food?

I was born and raised in Vallejo, went to UC-Berkeley and now I live in Lafayette. My mom is a really good cook. I never had to cook until I went to college, but I was exposed to a lot of different cultures—her side is Filipino. And because both my parents worked, my sister and I were looked after by a neighbor couple. She was German and he was Italian, so I was exposed to those foods, too. As a kid, I was a picky eater, but I grew out of it. At [UC-Berkeley], there are so many ethnic eats, and after a year of dorm food, I was ready to learn how to cook.

When did you get into wine?

We would go to church every Sunday and out for breakfast, and then often go to wine country. I remember running around in the fields and vegetable gardens of the wineries with my sister when my parents were inside. They had a glass of wine with every dinner. It was natural for me to get into it. But I didn’t turn 21 until my senior year of college, so I didn’t do a lot of wine country trips at that point. Once I did, with my boyfriend, who is now my husband, we found it so intimidating. When you’re that young, sometimes the people pouring assume you want to get drunk or get free booze. But we were really interested in learning. We felt unwelcomed in some places—it’s an ageist thing. I get it. I’ve seen the party buses.

What is the swimming culture like when it comes to food?

More people on the national team are getting into food. It used to be not too many took pleasure in cooking and eating—food was simply fuel. Now I see more really into cooking and into food. It’s changing slowly. But to be fair, swimmers have to eat a lot, and very often. It’s a lot of work.

What about wine?

There are some swimmers who appreciate it, but not as much as I do. We have strict training competition rules, though: no alcohol. I hate that so much. Wine is something I miss. At home, I have a glass of wine with every dinner. And talk to any doctor, they say that’s fine. We do weeks of training pre-Olympics, and it’s just tough. I look forward to that glass of wine so much.

“I did this show called ­Celebrity Bucket List, and I told them I just want to work in a kitchen or a ­winery.”

You have a picture of a Campagnolo corkscrew on your Instagram account. Is Italy one of your favorite food cultures?

I love going to Italy and collecting wine and gigantic corkscrews. It’s 100 percent my favorite food culture. I try to go there every fall, to Alto Adige. I went initially six years ago [for a swim meet] in November, but more than anything [just to visit] Italy.

You have chickens and a robust garden. Have you always grown your own food?

After having my first apartment in Berkeley, I realized how much herbs cost, so I started growing my own. It expanded to a Meyer lemon tree. When I moved to Lafayette, I wanted a proper garden. If you’re going to have a garden, why not make it productive? We’re blessed in California. We can grow anything.

What are some of your most memorable winery visits?

Most recently, in Alto Adige, I went to Girlan to do a whole tasting. I tried all sorts of wine, but I had the most beautiful, floral white. I’m generally a red wine person, but this one, the Riserva Bianca 2010—wow. I brought a few of those home. And Antica in the Napa Valley. I did this show called Celebrity Bucket List, and I told them I just want to work in a kitchen or a winery. They said, done and done. I went to Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa with [co-founder] Donna Scala, right before she got sick [she passed away in 2014]. She took me all over town.

What are some of your go-to wineries in the Napa Valley?

I’m a big fan of Pine Ridge, Domaine Carneros and Hall. My married name is Hall. We got a methuselah of 2006 Kathryn Hall for our guest book at our wedding. We had everybody sign that. And one of my best friends is the associate winemaker at Hunnicutt. She’s a great resource. I’m more of a Napa girl. I love the Stags Leap area, and our friends live in Napa.

Are you thinking of getting more involved in the food world after swimming?

I would absolutely love to. It’s what I want to do. I want to write a cookbook on how does an Olympic athlete eat: healthy, but enjoy your food.

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