Armenian Brandy Tasting Event in New England Raises funds for the Muratsan Chemotherapy Clinic of Yerevan
Special for The Armenian Weekly
Armenia produces some world-class brandy.
The drink was ever-present at meetings of Soviet leadership during the days of the U.S.S.R.
A 70-year-old bottle of the stuff was sold at a Sotheby’s auction last year for £80,000—or about $120,000 USD (at the time).
Even former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a huge fan of the potent potable, after receiving a bottle as a gift from Stalin during the Yalta Conference in 1945.
While all this may not be news to some, the fact remains that Armenian brandy is unfortunately not as well known to the North American market than some of its French (mostly cognac) counterparts such as, say, Rémy Martin or Hennessy.
For Yerevan-born Bostonian Zareh Zurabyan, Armenian brandy has always been a staple in his home—both in Armenia and in the United States. So when he had the idea of better acquainting the Boston-Armenian community with the often-ignored drink, he needed a worthy cause to attach to an event.
“I long wanted to organize a Armenian Brandy tasting event in New England. I was in contact with Ararat Brandy, and had been thinking of collaborating with them for some time,” Zurabyan says.
Ararat Brandy is the most famous brand of the Yerevan Brandy Company—the leading Armenian brandy producer—first founded in 1887, and the recipient of countless awards from several international competitions throughout the years.
Though it has yet to make its breakthrough in the North American market, Ararat has become leading brandy in Russia, much of the former Soviet Union, and most recently in Europe.
Zurabyan says that the idea of a brandy tasting event really took off after a chance meeting at an event at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall.
“The seed for the tasting event was planted at the seventh annual Najarian Endowed Lecture on Human Rights at Faneuil Hall, organized by the Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway back in November. At that event, famed activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte spoke about social activism, justice, and equality,” Zurabyan explains. “At 89-years-old, Belafonte could barely keep standing, but he did so for an hour, encouraging everyone in the room to be more active in their respective communities, and to leave a positive impact on the world.”
After hearing the inspiring words of the “King of Calypso,” it was at the event’s reception that Zurabyan was introduced to Cynthia Kazanjian, who had been actively raising awareness and necessary funds for the Muratsan Chemotherapy Clinic of the Yerevan University Hospital for the few months.
“It all started during a recent trip to Armenia, in July,” says Kazanjian. “When we visited the Muratsan Clinic with our tour group from Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church [of Cambridge, Mass.], led by Reverend Father Vasken Kouzouian. There, we met Pediatric hematologist/oncologist Dr. Gevorg Tamamyan, and were given a tour of the clinic. We met several of the children undergoing chemotherapy treatment for different forms of cancer.”
The clinic was in dire need of medical equipment, basic supplies, and chemotherapy drugs.
“My 10-year-old grandson, Vaughan was with me,” Kazanjian says. “He saw children close to his own age, some bedridden, extremely sick from cancer. He was extremely moved and asked me what we were going to do to help?”
Dr. Tamamyan told Kazanjian’s group about the training he had received at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “My attention was drawn to that piece of the conversation as I had developed a relationship with Dana-Farber over the years. I have walked for Dana-Farber in the Jimmy Fund Marathon for the past 13 years,” Kazanjian says.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a comprehensive cancer treatment and research center located in Boston, Mass., widely considered to be the best pediatric cancer center in the nation.
In Yerevan, Kazanjian asked Dr. Tamamyan if there could be a value to the clinic if funds could be raised through Dana-Farber. “He loved the idea and suggested we contact Dana-Farber directly. When we got back to Boston, I asked Barbara Tellalian if she could help me find a contact there. Through her efforts, we found Irini Albanti, the Director of the Global Health Initiative of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center (DF/BC). She and her team helped us get started with our fundraising effort,” Kazanjian explains.
The first major event to help the fundraising effort was held at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church Picnic in September. Then, on Sept. 25, a group of 13 walkers successfully completed a 13-mile walk to raise more funds.
In an effort to raise further awareness about the clinic, several members of the Muratsan medical team, who were in Boston to undergo training at Dana-Farber, were invited to Holy Trinity Church Armenian Apostolic Church of Cambridge in October, to present their program to the Boston-Armenian community.
“Cynthia’s cause was close to my heart—after all, helping children of Armenia had already been my focus since April of this year, while I was fundraising along with my brother Nerses for orphans in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh/NKR) through the Knights of Vartan,” says Zurabyan. “Additionally, my aunt passed away due to cancer, so this cause had personal inspiration as well—especially knowing that she suffered a lot due to the far from perfect healthcare in Armenia.”
That’s how the idea of the charity brandy tasting event came to fruition. “I contacted Ararat Brandy, and they decided to sponsor our event. I am very appreciative of that,” Zurabyan says.
Zurabyan also happened to be friends with pastry chef Nathan Kibarian of Boston’s trendy Bastille Kitchen, and the two had been speaking about working together for some time. “What goes best with brandy? Dessert!” So, Nathan and I sat down and tried to figure out what flavors and textures would go best with the different brandies, and designed two new desserts,” he explains.
Supported by the Knights of Vartan, the brandy tasting event took place at the Armenian American Social Club (Papken Suni agoump) on Dec. 14, with over 70 in attendance to support Muratsan’s collaboration with Dana-Farber. “One of the most important parts of the collaboration is that this program is not just donating a certain cycle of medication or medical equipment and having a ‘one-time impact’,” Zurabyan says. “It’s about having a long term relationship.”
Materials expire, knowledge does not.
The collaboration between the Muratsan Hospital Clinic of Chemotherapy, DF/BC and the Yerevan-based City of Smile Foundation began in 2015. “The goal has been to develop pediatric oncology and hematology in Armenia,” says Dr. Tamamyan.
Doctors and other medical staff get trained at Dana Farber with the latest policies and protocols, which allows them to bring those valuable medical disciplines back to Armenia to implement. There has already been a great impact because of this partnership.
“In January we had the team from DF/BC and the Harvard School of Public Health—under the leadership of the wonderful Irini Albanti—visit Armenia and conduct a situation analysis of cancer care in Armenia,” Dr. Tamamyan explains.
In May, Muratsan, in collaboration with DF/BC and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, organized an international conference and master classes in Yerevan, featuring leaders from the United States.
“One of the main cornerstones of the collaboration is the aim to establish a comprehensive regional cancer center in Armenia, and DF/BC’s Global Health Initiative has been guiding us in this effort. The success of this project will be a great achievement for Armenia, when one of the world’s leading institutions brings the knowledge and skills to our country,” Dr. Tamamyan says.
Perhaps the most apparent result of the collaboration has been the establishment of the first psycho-social oncology program in Armenia. “DF/BC supported—through mentoring, training, providing materials, and financially—the creation of the first program of its kind in Armenia,” explains Dr. Tamamyan. Two psychosocial workers—one for children and one for adults—were also hired for the program.
According to Zurabyan, people who attended the brandy tasting event and donated to the cause invested in raising the standards and the quality of healthcare in Armenia.
“I think that people in Diaspora should be focusing more on such initiatives, that lay emphasis on establishing an infrastructure, a program that changes things within the system or presents a new system,” Zurabyan says. “We in the Diaspora always want to help our homeland, but often times we do not know how. Or our help becomes series of donations that act as ‘Band-Aid’ solutions. In order for us to be more strategic, Armenia needs to work with Diasporans who have a fresh mindset, a different perspective, and support systems from other countries. We must focus on infrastructure tuning, rather than one time donations.”
The December event was a final, year-end push for Kazanjian’s efforts to help Muratsan. Through her tireless efforts, and a boost from the brandy tasting event, a total of over $24,000 has been raised so far this year.
Zurabyan says the event—which was a major success given the short time it was planned in—would not have been possible with the efforts of a united community. “I want to sincerely thank Kevork and Mania Boyajian from the Papken Suni agoump for always assisting us in hosting important events, and the Knights of Vartan for their continuous support of our community here and back in Armenia,” says Zurabyan.
“We wanted the event to be more than just a fundraiser; more than just a brandy tasting,” he adds. “We wanted to show what we can do as a community when we come together for a good cause—and that is exactly what happened.”
The Armenian Weekly would like to sincerely thank Zareh Zurabyan for his contributions to this article.