They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. But there I was, turning up a steeply graded Silverado Trail driveway to interview the founders of Gaderian: winemaker Shaina Harding and Natalie Coughlin Hall.
Yes, that Natalie Coughlin, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist who was smashing backstroke records as a student at UC Berkeley while I was competing—at a considerably less-impressive pace—for NYU. (Go Violets!)
Fast-forward 20 years, and they’re showing me around their base of operations at the Hunnicutt property in St. Helena, where Harding is associate winemaker. The Gaderian lineup—Napa Cabernet, Pinot Noir, old-vine Chenin Blanc, rosé and more—is serious. The brand’s tasting notes are playfully irreverent: “It tastes like Pinot Noir. What more do you want? A diatribe about effervescent fruit and baking spice aromas bursting from the glass? What about a gratuitous description of how the tannins feel like the worn-out velvet of my grandmother's Victorian-era sofa? They do, by the way …”
Harding and Coughlin Hall founded Gaderian Wines in 2017. All it took was a text: “I’m ready to start my wine label. Would you partner with me?” Harding messaged her friend. “I probably texted back in like 30 seconds,” Coughlin laughs. But their dream was nearly 20 years in the making.
Harding, a Florida native, moved to New York City as a teenager to pursue a life in music. Among her jobs waiting tables, bartending and checking coats was a gig with BR Guest Hospitality restaurant group. She attended BR Guest’s “wine college” with sommelier Laura Maniec and took some courses at NYU in sensory analysis, but she ended up working in finance. During that time, she also met her husband, a former UC Santa Barbara swimmer who’d been teammates with Natalie Coughlin Hall’s husband. When Harding and her husband moved to the Bay Area, she and Coughlin Hall became fast friends, driven by a shared passion for wine and food.
”[I was] working in finance [in San Francisco] during the crash of ’08,” Harding recalls. “I was so miserable. What is something I could do that’s not this? I was so close to wine country … I went to a job fair at Domaine Chandon. The cellarmaster hired me to be a weighmaster, and I worked the 2008 harvest and I just fell in love. They let me get inside this 21-ton press and dismantle all of the pieces inside so we could sanitize it. I loved it!”
The Domaine Chandon position was followed by a job at Clos Pegase, and then Harding went back to school. “I had to start all over. My first degree was in international affairs. I had no science background. I had no mathematics. I had to go through calculus, chemistry, bio-chem … I had to do some pre-reqs at Napa Valley College, and I remember sitting in the chem class and there were these kids who were probably 18 and the one guy says to the other, ‘I went to so-and-so’s house last night and they had a keg!’ and the other guy goes, ‘Really?! What did it look like?!’ And I just thought, oh my gosh, I should not be in this room … but also can they help me with my homework?”
Harding then transferred to UC Davis, earning her enology degree in 2013. “I would pick her brain, and I was very vocal with how amazing it was that she was re-doing her undergrad,” says Coughlin Hall. “I couldn’t imagine going back to school, and I was so impressed with Shaina’s ability to follow her passion.”
Harding was hired at Hunnicutt in 2015, after five years at Flora Springs. At each stop along the way, she’d also been cultivating vineyard contacts. “Shaina already had fruit contracts lined up [when she texted me about starting a wine label].”
Coughlin Hall, on the other hand, was born and raised in California wine country. “I grew up in Vallejo and Benicia, and my parents are really into wine. It was common for them to taste with my sister and I when they would go wine tasting,” says Coughlin Hall. “I was always interested in wine, and I [turned 21 before] my first Olympics in 2004. I was a professional athlete and had some disposable income, so I wanted to come up [to Napa] and learn more about it. I started doing a lot of tasting, trying to educate myself as much as possible. All the while I was training. People think of athletes as being so Spartan, like 50 weeks out of the year you have to eat like Tom Brady—not everyone does that! I was always really interested in wine.”
Coughlin Hall also loves to cook. She showed up on the Today show during the 2008 Olympics to make Chinese food, has competed on the Food Network’s Chopped and has served as a judge on Iron Chef America. Her cookbook, Cook to Thrive, was published in 2019.
But Harding is the chef in the cellar. “This is our fifth vintage [of Gaderian], and I have learned so much [from Shaina],” Coughlin Hall says, “and I’m a lot more confident now in picking up what works well. We’ve worked with the same Pinot vineyard this entire time, and my sense memory has improved a lot.”
“[Natalie] is a little harder on the wines in terms of nuance,” says Harding, “but it’s harder for me to separate myself from my babies!”
Harding treats her wines with a personal touch, and expects the same from the grapegrowers she works with, including Henry Ranch Vineyard owner Josh Anstey, Flora Springs vineyard manager Sean Garvey and the Beckstoffer family, whose Orchard Avenue Vineyard in Oak Knoll is the source of an upcoming Gaderian Merlot. “We don’t need to shit in a bullhorn and bury it, but we want to make sure that all the vineyards we source from are sustainably farmed [and] everything is hand-worked,” Harding says. “I only work with growers that I know.”
When it comes to her winemaking philosophy, Harding likes to let the wines do their thing, at least until she thinks they need a course correction. “I’m a nurturer,” she says. “I’m not totally laissez-faire, but I want [my wine] to grow up to be the best thing that it can be. If you just do gentle things to help it along, it will tend to turn into its best self.”
“When you listen to your barrels, they tell you a story about what is going on in the vessel,” Harding says. “We have these—I call them ‘singing bungs’—two-piece fermentation bungs. At the height of fermentation, the escaping gas makes this kind of singing noise, and when it starts to slow down, I can pull the bung off and listen to it. If it’s got a nice ‘sssss’ fizz, I know that primary is rolling but it’s coming to an end, and if I hear the snap-crackle-pop sound of Rice Krispies, I know that it’s already gone into secondary malolactic fermentation. So I always need to be present for the wine. I want to nurture it so it can grow up to be a big kid!”
It’s a refreshing change of pace in Napa to meet two women making quality-focused wines and so obviously having fun doing it. And it’s reflected in every aspect of their brand, from Harding’s electric-blue hair to the mythical creature staring back from the Gaderian label.
“We were doing ‘research’ on Chenin Blancs and Pinot Noirs,” Coughlin Hall laughingly air quotes, “and we were thinking about various mascots for our brand. Shaina was joking about a jackalope, and I loved the idea. My husband believed jackalopes were real until he was, like … way too old! It kind of goes along with our irreverent tasting notes. We do have jackrabbits in our vineyards, so we like to say the jackalope protects our wine. And ‘gaderian’ means ‘to gather’ in Old English, and what do you do when you have wine? You gather around a table with friends and family. We thought it was perfect.”
So go ahead and meet your heroes if you get the chance. They might even invite you to gather around a table for a glass of wine.