Champagne has long been a celebratory beverage hoisted during the world’s most famous bicycling event — The Tour de France. It makes sense. France is where Champagne comes from. But closer to home, our Western Mass wine world is also strangely connected to the world of cycling. Not for the glory of personal victory, but for the hope of defeating the so-called “Emperor of All Maladies.” The “Pan-Mass Challenge” is a two-day, 192-mile bicycle ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown. The PMC raises money for The Jimmy Fund and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. And, for some reason, an oddly large percentage of people that I know who are involved in wine in Western Mass have made this ride many times.
Rob Swan, aka “Wally The Wine Guy,” is a semi-regular guest on my wine tasting segment on the radio and a sales representative for Ruby Wines. Ruby is a family owned, fourth-generation wine distributor/wholesaler/middleman based in Avon. For the last couple of years, Rob has invited me to a wine-themed Pan-Mass Challenge fundraiser at Hope & Olive in Greenfield. This year they had rosé on tap. So really, how could I say ‘no’? “I rode in the Pan-Mass challenge for nine years,” says Swan. And then, with tongue firmly planted in cheek adds, “I’m really surprised cancer isn’t cured yet, with all the money this event has raised.” He has a point. Ruby Wines alone has raised over a million dollars. The Pan-Mass has raised over $674 million since it began in 1980. But why does Rob ride? “The fundraising and the training makes it really hard. You give up your entire life from April through August. But a few years ago,” Rob adds emotionally, “somebody took this random picture of me on the ride. This 12 year old kid is holding a poster saying ‘I’m alive for 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, 12 years thanks to the Pan Mass Challenge.’ And here’s my stupid ugly mug walking behind this kid.” That’s why he rides.
Pete Dickason from Hingham is the divisional sales manager and captain of the Ruby Wines team. This will be his 22nd PMC. “It doesn’t get easier as you get old,” he says. He came all the way out to Hope & Olive for the fundraiser. “We have a pretty solid core at Ruby. This team is our biggest team every with 16 riders. 100 percent of the donations go to the Jimmy Fund. And that money goes straight to Dana Farber.” But the ride becomes more personal once you start pedaling. Dickason says, choking back tears, “My 3rd or 4th year it rained cats and dogs. I had four flats. I was at the base of this hill outside Sandwich. I was ready to give up. I pushed my bike up the hill. At the top there was a family with a little girl with a ‘thank you’ sign. They took me to the rest stop and I never looked back.” I asked Pete if it’s strange that a company, whose sole purpose is to sell alcohol — which according to some studies causes cancer — is so invested in an event whose aim is to end cancer. He replies, “Today red wine is good for you. Tomorrow red wine is bad for you. ‘Everything in moderation including moderation.’ (quoting Oscar Wilde). Dickason continues, “We take it very seriously and we raise a lot of money. There are people that I see exactly once a year at the Pan Mass challenge. And when we get on that ferry we pick up the conversation from exactly where we left off. And not all of those people make it. Some of them die. And we raise a glass in their honor.”
Dawn Kessell is the division manager for Ruby Wines. She lives in South Hadley and was also at the Hope & Olive event. “I am involved in this because I lost my best friend, at 48 years old, to cancer. I had been riding for three years prior on the Ruby Wines team and I was going to quit. And then my best friend died. As hard as it is, I think of all the chemo treatments I went to with her and nothing compares. When I’m sweating it out on the road, I’m thinking of her.”
Ruby isn’t the only wine company who takes part. Michael Brunelle from Westfield is the Corporate Wine Sales Manager for Big Y and Table & Vine. Brunelle, aka Vino Rojo — due to his amazing shock of red hair — previously worked for Martignetti, the largest distributor of wines and spirits in New England. Martignetti has a Pan Mass Challenge team every year. Vino Rojo wanted to join but says “I was always concerned about the fundraising commitment. Then my father passed away from cancer.” Corbin Kinney, who works for Martingetti, came through the line at the wake. “He gave me a handshake and a hug and said, ‘Well, that solidifies it. We’re definitely riding in the PMC next year.” And they did. “The year that I first rode, my sister drove my mom out to the opening ceremony. We were still pretty raw at the loss of our father. And I whispered in my sister’s ear ‘you can do this.’ The next day it was pouring rain. The coldest, wettest PMC in history. They ended up treating like 150 riders for hypothermia in August. We got to one of the rest stops and my sister was there with my mom, holding a sign. My sister turns the sign and around and it said ‘Because of you I commit to the next PMC.’ She didn’t even own a bicycle at the time. And I just lost it…”
Seeing as this is actually supposed to be a wine column, I asked the PMC riders what their favorite wine experiences have been surrounding the Pan-Mass Challenge. Peter Dickerson says “Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile from a magnum. No question.” Dawn Kessel remembers a Groth Cabernet 1997. Rob Swan says “Lori Larson and her husband, Sterling Dune, host a Ruby Wines Rejuvenation station Sunday Morning at her house in Barnstable. Boizel Champagne, cherries, mimosas etc. you have a couple of glasses and it sets you up for the rest of the ride.” And Michael Brunelle says his favorite wine experience on the PMC is the Champagne stop on Sunday. “I don’t think it’s in the handbook as an official stop. My family rents a house on the Cape. On the Sunday morning, my wife and her mother and sister set up a Champagne stop in Yarmouth with snacks and Veuve Clicquot rosé and Roederer L’Ermitage Champagne. It’s just magnificent. It’s pretty funny to watch other riders go by the Champagne stop and go ‘WHAT THE…”
Wine can make you a little weepy but it wasn’t the wine working when I saw how emotional these wine reps were when speaking about the Pan-Mass Challenge. Brunelle says “One year I saw a girl the same age as my daughter with a Boston Red Sox cap on, but you could tell she was going through treatment. She was holding a sign that just said ‘Thank you for riding’ and I think what if that was my kid? It seems selfish. I love to get on my bike and ride. I’ve just had the best two days of my life. And this kid on Monday is probably going to be at Dana Farber.” But Brunelle put this strange confluence of wine and endurance philanthropy in perspective, “All these people in the beverage industry, let’s face it, we live a pretty cool lifestyle. We drink wine for a living. To be part of something infinitely bigger than yourself is humbling — it’s emotional, it’s inspirational, it’s everything cliche. But no one takes our lifestyle for granted. We know that we’re very fortunate to do what we do and happy to be doing it. The PMC is just a miniscule way of paying it back.” I’ll drink to that.
If you want to support the Ruby Wines team https://profile.pmc.org/TR0044.
If you want to support Vino Rojo’s sister https://profile.pmc.org/ND0065.
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