Phoebe Champion knows something about breaking eco-norms.
She was a plant-based pro water polo player when vegan diets were considered to be “out there”. Now, she’s bringing her passion for and knowledge of the environment and the climate fight to the wine world, as general manager of Akrathos, a winery based about 50 miles east of Thessaloniki, Greece.
GSB spoke with Champion, who is working remotely from Northern California during COVID, about her trail blazing pursuits, and about what it will take to get more athletes to take on the climate fight.
GreenSportsBlog: I know that being a plant-based athlete 20, 25 years ago must’ve been a challenge. But for you, it was second nature. How so?
Phoebe Champion: My three older sisters and I were born in Hawaii but moved to Northern California when I was eight years old. The Bay Area is generally a modern, progressive place, but in the mid-90’s that mindset didn’t apply to everything nor everyone.
We all started swimming at more or less Day 1 and began playing water polo not too long after. In addition to aquatics, my sisters and I cared (still do!) deeply for animals. We found out just how much when my sister Laurel did a school report on cruelty to animals, which motivated all of us to become vegetarian at an early age. It’s been a non-negotiable part of who I am ever since.
GSB: How did your parents feel about that?
Phoebe: I was so young at the time so it’s very possible that it was in actuality more complicated than I recall… but from what I remember, they were supportive and like the flip of a switch we were all eating vegetarian diets. Enormous credit is due to them both for supporting what was, at the time, such a different choice.
I found a surprising amount of pushback from friends, acquaintances, employees at restaurants. Making an ethically-motivated decision means that folks on the other end of the spectrum sometimes assume that you are judging them, even if that isn’t the case. That put a lot of people on the defensive even before we’d had the chance to have a conversation.
GSB: What else did you learn from that experience?
Phoebe: It taught us how to be different without inciting conflict, how to be a strategic communicator…
GSB: …A ‘strategic communicator’ before high school? That’s impressive and also a gift.
Phoebe: I found that to be a useful skill as I grew older.
I also began to learn about the complicated sociological issues surrounding the choice to eat vegan.
Traditional — and outdated, in my opinion — gender roles expect a “manly” American man to eat meat, know how to grill it, and even know how to kill it in some areas. I received a tremendous amount of beef (terrible pun but I had to) for choosing to eat vegetarian or vegan but felt like I ultimately was afforded leniency from society because I was still able to perform well in my sports. Regardless of their skill level, the amount of ridicule placed on men who choose not to eat meat is far greater than what women receive, in my experience. That’s a tough place to be for anyone, especially men who are expected to conform a certain way.
GSB: You’re right, although I think that is starting to change a bit, thanks at least in part to “The Game Changers,” a documentary film by plant-based MMA star James Wilks, and others. In addition to vegetarianism, you also got into swimming and then water polo from a very young age…
Phoebe: Growing up in Hawaii, pools and the ocean were a big part of life, so water safety was very important. Turns out my older sisters were quite gifted athletes, so I was thrown into the pool as well. I was racing by about age 5 and playing water polo by age 8.
GSB: Why water polo?
Phoebe: Initially it was a natural evolution from swimming. My parents knew that team sports are a healthy experience for all kids, and we were in an area with great coaches. Unfortunately, I hated it for the first few years and my poor parents had to bribe me to go to practice. Thank goodness they did because by age 12, I was completely hooked.
GSB: How so?
Phoebe: Because it’s the perfect sport. Athletically, it is arguably the most demanding sport in the world.
You need agility, speed, endurance, strength, strategy, awareness, and “teamsmanship” – and there are so many different ways you can contribute and be effective. Some of the best players in the world are small, quick, and scrappy, even though being big has its obvious advantages.
GSB: What was your role?
Phoebe: I had a varied role called Utility. I was relatively tall so could play center, yet my swimming background allowed me to be strong on the counterattack, which is really a mini-race. As I got older, I developed my outside shooting, which added variety to the ways in which I could be a threat.
GSB: Southern California is the hotbed of the sport in the U.S., but you grew up in Northern California. Was there a water polo scene there
Phoebe: I went to Palo Alto High School and was fortunate that the girls’ team had been established a decade or so before I got there. We also had a wonderful club team at Stanford. So, I did have the opportunity to play and to develop my game.
When it came time to pick a college, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and USC were the powerhouses. My sisters were already at Stanford and Cal so there was naturally a strong possibility that I would stay on the west coast.
Then Princeton came on to my radar before my junior year and I went on a recruiting trip when I was a senior. The school immediately appealed to me even though I didn’t completely understand the weight of what that meant at the time.
GSB: I assume that Princeton was not at the level of the west coast schools, water polo-wise…
Phoebe: You would be right, Lew.
I was a bit afraid of being so far away from the national team in Southern California and of the Ivy League’s athletic restrictions. It was different, but that was also exciting to me. Of course, the academic reputation of Princeton speaks for itself.
So, I picked Princeton, ended up majoring in foreign languages, focusing on Italian and French, with translation as a minor — it’s similar to water polo in terms of application of creativity. I am very happy with my decision, even if it meant making sacrifices in my water polo career.
GSB: How did being a vegan figure into your water polo career?
Phoebe: Being a high-level vegan athlete was challenging, especially in the early days. Some coaches and teammates were skeptical, to say the least. It became easier when people saw that my performance was not adversely affected and perhaps even improved. But I had the conversation about my dietary choices with different skeptics several times a week. Expanding a person’s perspective is very difficult.
GSB: Ya think? So, you were the vegan water polo player at Princeton, away from the U.S. water polo epicenter on the west coast. How did you get back on the National team radar?
Phoebe: My goal was to make the Olympic team for London 2012. I had trained with the national team a few years prior and had a good rapport with the coach. Unfortunately, he retired after Beijing 2008. The new coach and I didn’t know each other, which proved to be a barrier for me.
So, after graduation in 2010, I decided to play professionally in Italy for Padua in Serie A, the best overall women’s league in the world. I thought this was the best way to get the attention of the national team.
GSB: What was that like?
Phoebe: It was an incomparable experience after a challenging early adjustment period. The organization was solid and well-run, and I had great teammates.
In the pool, we had a very strong first half of the season as a team and I did as an individual. In the second half our play became more scripted, which wasn’t so good for me as I perform best when the team is given license to read, react, and respond to the game ourselves.
Also, the Italian pro game was scrappier and more physical in a different way than I’d experienced up until then, which forced me to modify my own style.
We finished the season well, so I thought I was in a good place to reach out to the new staff at Team USA in late 2010 to let them know I wanted to take a shot at making the Olympic team.
GSB: What did the coach say?
Phoebe: In summary, the message was ‘we pretty much already have chosen the team,’ which was discouraging to say the least.
Even though I played the best I could to change things, it wasn’t enough and it seemed like the national team door was closed for me.
GSB: How did you deal with that?
Phoebe: It was difficult — very hard — to give up that dream because water polo was all-consuming for me.
It took a few years to get over it — in truth, I will never be 100 percent over it, but I’ve been able to make my peace. My Princeton network and my family helped me dive into other parts of life and be excited about a new future.
So, I decided I wanted to use my foreign language skills and didn’t want to sit at a desk for 12 hours a day. I started working in sales for a wine distributor in New York City…
GSB: …Foreign languages — check! No desk — check!
Phoebe: For sure! My portfolio had wines from all over the world: Spain, France and Italy, my boss was Italian, and we hosted a lot of people from abroad — it was perfect that way and my language skills earned me some extra cred in the industry.
It was a great first job but not for the long-term — it was very execution-oriented, less strategic — but I had the wine bug.
GSB: So, what did you do?
Phoebe: I thought I wanted to be a winemaker, so I took an internship in California in 2013 during which I worked in a cellar and the lab for a harvest season.
GSB: That sounds so cool…
Phoebe: It was.
I learned the whole process, from the vine to the glass. Fermentation, the chemical side. Then I joined a winery in the Santa Cruz mountains that was being resurrected after 20 years of abandonment. We analyzed the health of the vines, proper canopy management — in what way the vines grow best.
It’s a fascinating science — every varietal, every microclimate is different. We flipped from growing Syrah to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grafting many of the vines in the process.
Even though I loved it I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to do with my career.
So, then I went to work for a luxury wine importer which functioned as the marketing and sales management arm for wineries from all over the world. That provided me with valuable experience in yet another side of the wine business…
GSB: …Now you have distribution, wine making, and importing experience.
Phoebe: Yeah, but none of those things were calling me.
So, I took six months off, traveling in Africa and other parts of the world, looking for a “Come to Jesus” moment. Lo and behold, nothing of a lightning bolt variety came to me. But my travels opened my eyes to issues surrounding animal welfare…
GSB: …Harkening back to your youth!…
Phoebe: Yes! And also, environmental sustainability and climate change.
It’s an area I’ve always been passionate about but the weight of the issue lands differently when you actually witness deforestation firsthand — in Madagascar and Malaysia, in my case — and see rivers and streams full of refuse. The U.S. is certainly not exempt from these problems either.
When I reflected on the wine industry in terms of those issues, I felt pretty good. In the U.S., organic and bio-dynamic farming were becoming more prevalent. Wineries were going carbon neutral, adding solar panels, recycling their own water, and more. But it has a long way to go — winemaking is a resource-intense process, especially where water is concerned.
GSB: So, you were an experienced wine industry executive with multifaceted experience and with climate and environmental sustainability as part of your ethos. But you weren’t sure what you wanted to do next. What ended up happening?
Phoebe: I had an opportunity in June 2019 to become GM of Akrathos, a start-up winery in Greece not far from Thessaloniki and the Aegean Sea. It was exciting to have the chance to build something up from infancy and make environmental sustainability a core value.
GSB: What are some of the ways Akrathos is doing so?
Phoebe: We are organic, have on-site solar, we compost, and are pushing the region to expand its recycling program. Many of our vines are dry-farmed to limit our water use. This means that we use zero or next-to-zero manual water addition in the vineyards. When you plant indigenous varietals in the appropriate microclimate, they naturally adapt to the site and require fewer resources, like water, in order to flourish.
GSB: I had no idea…How has the Greek industry reacted?
Phoebe: Well, there certainly is some skepticism there but the concepts are gaining traction and will continue to grow as we demonstrate success. Early returns are promising, even during the pandemic. So, we’re spreading the message of organic farming, water conservation and sustainable winemaking.
GSB: One last question, and it’s an easy one: How would you say your veganism and your water polo career have prepared you for being a trail blazing eco-winemaker? During COVID?
Phoebe: Each of those made me comfortable with being challenged, with being uncomfortable, from an early age.
Whether that meant being challenged on my ethics or physically challenged by water polo, I was regularly evaluating and reinforcing my beliefs as well as testing my physical limits. That practice helped build confidence, and although I still experience overwhelming moments and the occasional feeling of self-doubt, I know how to work through them. I also learned to find value in difficult situations, which COVID has provided plenty of. I believe that the narrative we tell ourselves has a tremendous impact on our output. So, re-framing COVID lockdowns as an opportunity for the winery rather than solely a setback has translated into a few new successful developments and experiments that we will be announcing soon.
Photo at top: Phoebe celebrating with Akrathos Assyrtiko at the winery’s Grand Opening in September, 2019 (Photo credit: Damien Bartolo)