By Robin Bartholow for Farm News

The temperature was hovering barely above freezing, but the spirits were high at this year’s Sonoma County Pruning Championships on March 1st. This was the second year the Sonoma County Pruning Contest Committee, with Riggs Lokka as Chair have managed the event. Before the two-year pandemic hiatus, the event was managed by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission for 23 years. 

Lokka stated, “the Sonoma County pruning championship is an amazing event put on by committee members throughout Sonoma County to allow the hard-working vineyard workers to show off their skill, but mainly the quality of work that they produce. This year we are very excited that we have the opportunity to name the men’s contest after Richard Kunde, and the women’s contest after Sunni Ashley. Both of these individuals have added a great amount to the industry in which these field workers are to be recognized.”

Familiar company names and logos were present in every direction as vineyard management companies, wineries and independent farmers from all over Sonoma County gathered to watch and support their friends and employees in the contest.  Mark Houser, a retired manager at Alexander Valley Vineyards and Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards stated, “This is a big deal for our industry. We want to honor these professional pruners – they are the backbone of the industry and their skills and effort in the vineyards sets the crop for the next season. We could not do it without them.” 

There were fifty-nine pruners from twenty-seven companies all vying for first prize, and women competed separately from the men. Morgan Marengo from Atlas Vineyard Management noted that the event is not only competitive but social as well.  “These folks don’t get to see each other very often because they work so hard,” Marengo stated, “Atlas enters two men and two women every year and then matches any prize they win.”

Joan Patrick from Dutton Ranch helped keep track of the timers and explained that the participants are judged not only on speed, but also on accuracy. Each pruner has five vines to prune and on average, it takes about 4 minutes. 

Rick Shaeffer from Silverado Premium Properties has been judging the contest for years. He explained that there are a number of criteria contestants are judged on such as pruning to two buds with a finger width above the second bud, cutting off the old berry clusters called mummies, making flat cuts to reduce the surface area on the vines open wound to prevent disease, and to trim all unnecessary small spurs that may harden and become a safety hazard when harvest takes place. Even the placement of the sheared canes is judged with highest marks going to placement in the middle of the vine row so that the tractor can efficiently transverse and grind all the spent canes into organic matter that then improves the soil.

The first place winner in the men’s pruning contest was Juan Avila, a 23 year employee at Emeritus Vineyards, who won a Champion Belt Buckle, VIP Basket worth $600, a Bahco pruning saw, first place plaque, Felco jacket and a cash prize. The second-place winner was Rosendo Avila, a one-year employ at Gables Wine Country Inn, who won a basket, second-place plaque, and cash prize. The first-place winner of the women’s contest was Diana Reyes a three-year employee of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard who won a VIP basket, Felco jacket, first place plaque, and cash prize. The second-place winner was Natividad Santana Brito from Atlas Vineyard Management who won a Central Valley basket, second-place plaque and cash prize.

It was a real community effort, and many industry volunteers were on site to help, including SCFB Board and YF&R members Daniel Charles, Nicolas Hernandez Ramirez, and Mia Stornetta. Lunch was served to all who competed, helped and cheered the participants on.