“Uno! Dos! Vamanos!” said Ray Sanchez to the eight finalists competing for a coveted champion title. Sanchez served as Master of Ceremonies at the 16th annual Sonoma County Pruning Championship held at Shone Farm on February 13th.
The contest was put on by the Sonoma County Winegrowers and started with 47 registered competitors who were broken into four heats of 11-12 pruners.
New this year, the contest was a non-appellation contest and open to only Sonoma County residents. The competition allowed for two contestants to represent a vineyard management company, vineyard or winery who owns vines in Sonoma County. The 47 registered participants was down significantly from last year’s 93 pruners; however, the quality of the contestants was still evident.
“The contest is really unique,” said Andriana Duckworth, Marketing Coordinator for the Sonoma County Winegrowers, “people outside of the industry take note.” Duckworth said, “the competitors are the workforce and the backbone of our industry. The work they do and their attention to detail is astounding.”
In the first round, the competitors each pruned three Syrah vines. Individuals took three to five minutes before raising their hand to signal to a volunteer they were finished. Some competitors valued speed while others went for quality. The fastest contestant wasn’t docked points, but the second fastest was marked down one point, the third docked two points and it continued to the slowest contestant.
After each heat ended, three judges went down the vines to score contestants. Aside from speed, the judges were ranking the contestants for their accuracy – how well they made cuts on the spurs. Points were deducted for things such as shoots that were cut too long or too short, leaving “mummies” (shoots that didn’t grow) or leaving brush on the vines or ground.
“It’s all about accuracy,” said Lee Martinelli of Martinelli Winery who judged the first heat. “Every vine and spur is different so it’s really a judgment call for both the competitor and the judge.”
Judge Mark Houser, Vineyard Manager of Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards in Alexander Valley, explained how contestants could get bonus points in addition to having points deducted. The most common ways contestants could obtain these points were replacing dead spurs and extensions.
“Many leave their replacement spurs too long. It’s not a minus, but it’s a push,” said Houser pointing out how many pruners don’t take the time they need to complete bonuses properly and check their vines before they finish to make sure they won’t be docked points.
“Time isn’t really a factor, it’s the quality of pruning,” emphasized Houser.
After the four heats were completed, volunteers tallied the results and the top two competitors from each heat moved into the finals. The eight competitors in the final round each balanced speed and accuracy on five vines to compete for the championship title.
This year’s champion was Rosendo Avila of Emeritus Vineyards. Gustavo Rico of Seghesio Family Vineyards took second place. Samuel Campos of Vimark Vineyards was third and Alberto Avina of Grace Ranch was placed fourth.
“It’s a lot of practice and being able to make quick judgments – they’re professionals,” said Martinelli.