By Vicky Sama
Cover photo by Meg McMahon
(SOUTHAMPTON, MA) Ed Hamel drives his tractor over the sloping hills at Black Birch Vineyard. He cuts the tall grass into large rows, creating a parking lot for the upcoming JAM Fund Grand Fundo.
Just in time too. A 70-foot long white tent arrived this morning. It's for the one-day charity bike ride and post-ride barbecue for the record 400 cyclists registered for this year's event.
Since it started six years ago, the Grand Fundo is held at the Black Birch Vineyard, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Hamel runs the small winery with his wife Mary and their two friends and business partners Ian Modestow and Michelle Kersbergen. They grow 17 different grapes, including some experimental types. Their best sellers are the white Traminette and reds Cabernet Franc and, my favorite, Corot Noir.
"We produced 32 thousand bottles of wine last year," Hamel said. "It was our biggest year yet. We went from 7 to 17 to 28 to 32-thousand bottles in the four years we've been open to the public."
The Manhan River borders the 80-acre property. Only a small portion of that, five acres, is for growing vines. The rest is hayfields and some forest swamp, perfect not only for growing grapes but for a cyclocross course.
"In late September, we've had 50 to 60 people coming here for some intense training," Hamel said. "It's a cool scene."
For three days in August, the Black Birch hosted the Cycle-Smart Cyclocross Camp. Again, Hamel was out there cutting the grass to make sure it was in good shape for the training camp.
Before there was cross at Black Birch, there was cross country skiing-- Hamel's other passion. For years, Hamel captured snow using long, plastic fencing. He spread the snow across the field and then groomed it into a classic ski track with fine corduroy for his skate-ski loving daughter. Hamel put Coleman lanterns along the track so they could ski at night. His wife Mary says he was an amazing groomer, but...
"He spent more time setting up the snow than he ever got to ski it," she said."
It was a labor of love but one that Ed hardly has time for anymore. In January, the vineyard was socked with snow, but by the end of the week, it melted.
"The snow is very fickle here," Mary said.
When he's not driving the tractor or greeting winery guests, the 63-year-old Hamel is riding his Independent cross bike with road tubulars, the same bike he'll ride in this year's 68-mile Fundo.
"I've been on a bike only 12 times this year. I'm going to suffer," he said.
With the stunning view and all of the delicious food, gifts for riders and the love for cycling spinning around under the tent, the Fundo feels more like a wedding than a bike event. Hamel has created the perfect nest for this special day. The relationship Hamel has with his land is as strong as that with JAM.
"These guys are amazing," Hamel said. "Al, Mukunda and Jeremy are doers. They take action and follow through. They're good guys focused on cycling as a part of life and helping people."
Jeremy Powers, Al Donahue and Mukunda Feldman are the J-A-M in JAM Fund.
"Ed and Mary are huge supporters of cyclocross in our area and have been incredibly generous with their beautiful property," said Feldman, who does all the cooking onsite during the Fundo. "They let us host the Grand Fundo at their vineyard, providing a picturesque backdrop for our main fundraising event."
The vineyard is a nesting ground not only for the Grand Fundo but for the young fledglings of the JAM Fund development cycling team. The Black Birch hosts regular cyclocross training rides, wine tasting events and live music during summer months. The night before the Sept. 25 Grand Fundo, JAM held a VIP dinner for special guests in the winery's spacious backyard. Ed, Mary, their daughter and grandson were there, hobnobbing with guests and serving wine to go with a catered gourmet meal.
Hamel doubts he'll have time for cross racing this year, but says he won't miss riding in future Grand Fundos.
"I'm going to do the next 20," he said.
The Black Birch Vineyard is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m., and later for special events.