How an Olympic Gold Medalist Lost a Bet and Ended Up Buying a Vineyard

Daniele Molmenti competed for Italy in the men’s kayaking at the London Olympics. Months earlier, he bet his cousin that if he won gold, together they would buy a vineyard. Molmenti won.

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20 January 2017, 11:51am

I'm sitting in the Canary Wharf branch of Shake Shack with Federico Celot. We're nibbling crinkle cut fries and sneaking snips of his 2014 Prosecco. It's crisp and light and extra dry—a far cry from the sweet abomination you get in most British pubs. No, this is proper Prosecco. The stuff my nonna might drink while dicing an onion. It's a starting point—something to liven you up.

Celot, however, is not dicing an onion. Inexplicably, he is illuminating the bottle with his iPhone torch. I'm puzzled.

"Me and my cousin," he says in a thick, excitable Italian accent, "are playful, and this is a bit of us on the front of the bottles."

I have absolutely no idea what's going on, until … oh. After a moment or two, Celot cups his hands around the bottle's brand name, Molmenti Celot. I see now: it glows in the dark.

You'd think such gimmicks a little juvenile and unsophisticated for good wine, right? You'd be correct. But then most vineyards, and subsequent vintages, weren't founded because of an Olympic gold medal—more precisely, a bet that a man wouldn't win one. Yes. I need to explain.

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Italian kayaker and vineyard owner Daniele Molmenti. Photo courtesy Molmenti Celot.

Celot's cousin is 32-year-old kayaker Daniele Molmenti, who competed in the men's slalom kayaking at the London Olympics 2012. Months earlier, over a glass of whisky and a bowl of London street food, Molmenti had said to Celot that if he won gold, together they would buy a vineyard in their native region of Italy. Molmenti won. The bubbles really did pop.

Owning a vineyard together was more than just a drunken promise, it was a way for the cousins to better connect with where they grew up. Although Celot moved to Naples as a teenager, he and Molmenti are from Pordenone in the north east of Italy. The region is known for its Prosecco, as well as its rich, buttery pastas, polenta, gnocchi, and gamey meatballs. It's Italy sauteed in Alpine cream. (I implore you to try Montasio cheese, if you've not before.)

READ MORE: The Olympics Food Options Are So Bad that Athletes Are Eating McDonald's

Sadly for Molmenti, his diet was far too strict in the years of his competitive kayaking to gorge on cheese and Friuli ham. But his restraint paid off, and on his 28th birthday, in front of adoring crowds and his older cousin, he won Olympic gold.

"I saw my cousin on the day of the final," Celot tells me over our second glass of wine. "It was eventful. I was there, at the finishing line watching. When I saw him winning, I was overcome with joy—I shed a tear when I saw him break his paddles in two."

In the days of celebration afterwards, neither cousin mentioned their bet. But a week or so later, as they were settling down to some food and wine, Molmenti said: "Remember, cousin, we must now buy a vineyard."

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Cousins Daniele Molmenti (left) and Federico Celot on their vineyard in Pordenone, north east Italy. Photo courtesy Molmenti Celot.

Celot says: "He told me, he said, 'You remember our bet, right? We must.' Of course, I agreed. I had some money, and Daniele used most (I don't know how much) of his winnings. We also took out quite a sizeable loan. But we bought some fields, we planted the vines, and here we are. We acquired our vineyard, back in our home land, in 2013."

Celot tells me that the idea of "land" is hugely important to the duo—feeling at one with their home and having something growing in the earth that's Italian.

"We're Italian," Celot explains. "We love food and drink, it's who we are, and we both felt so strongly that we needed something in the Pordenone vineyard seemed natural to us—and we've poured everything into it. We think our region produces the finest Prosecco in the world. We don't add many preservatives, we make it in the traditional way—to get the fine, silky bubbles—and what we have, we think, is a very traditional drink. It's what we Italians like to drink. Very dry, easy. Our Prosecco reminds me of my young years, of my family, of life in Pordenone."

Molmenti moved to Nottingham a few years after his cousin did to pursue his kayaking career. The pair became closer than they had been, and met up often at food events. Molmenti had to plan their culinary meetings in between his packed training schedule and limit his food intake fiercely in order to stay in shape. Now, thankfully, he's able to be a little more relaxed.

"We were spending lots of time together, eating, drinking, going around," Celot tells me. "I could eat everything, but he was on very strict diet. But still, he's Italian, so he had to have wine—and Prosecco is at the heart of that. I think that little taste of home spurred him on. Now, it's the conclusion of his efforts—the two are entwined. Still, he used to joke that 'one day with me is enough to destroy four days of training.'"

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The cousin's 2014 Prosecco. Photo by the author.

Molmenti, who I speak to after my meeting with Celot, agrees with his cousin's account of this time.

"It was a mixture of incredible feelings, between joy and freedom!" Molmenti says. "After working so long for such a hard time, the gold medal was the calm after the storm. Finally after so many years of training and the many sacrifices that go with it, I could relax. The medal also opened doors. One was to open was to the land of the grapes: the vineyard. I always knew the medal was a dream, a goal, and somewhere in there the vineyard was too—I just didn't know it."

READ MORE: English Sparkling Wine Is the New Champagne

Molmenti says their first harvest was "as dramatic as one of his races," and he feels as competitive with his Prosecco as he did in his kayaking. Of course, the two are going to wax lyrical about the quality of their vintages, but the 2014 tasted good to me. There are plans to export more bottles to Britain with the next batch—though, naturally, Brexit is a little worrying.

"Yes, it is, but we won't discuss it," Celot says, much to my elation. "But yes, it's such early stages, but we're making Protected Destination of Origin-standard Prosecco, in a local, natural way. There's a market. We're at the top end.

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Molmenti inspecting the grapes. Photo courtesy Molmenti Celot.

Celot and Molmenti recently bought two more hectares, bringing their vineyard up to eight. It's a long-term, serious investment. There are plans to conquer (in a small way) the Prosecco world.

"All this takes a while," admits Celot, "but we're bringing out some more wines, too, and hope to break even next year. We're so excited that we're doing this. We never thought we'd actually grow grapes, let alone then make Prosecco.

"We called it—I know, it is cheesy—the golden vineyard. To us, it is a celebration."