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Napa vineyard pruning competition opens to women


YOUNTVILLE — Competition on Thursday for Napa County's top vineyard pruner was billed as an historic event because for the first time it included a division for female competitors.

But the real stunner came after all of the scores were tallied and the day's overall best in the field of 69 belonged to — a woman.

For years, organizers of the pruning competition, now in its 13th year, debated whether to include women, in part they said because women expressed reluctance to compete against men. The creation of a women-only division was seen as a compromise.

But with her skillful and swift use of pruning shears, Celia Perez, a 47-year-old Napa mother of two, on Thursday cut away any lingering doubts, and in the process, likely cleared a path for others following in her work boots.

The full import of Perez's achievement came well after Thursday's event at Beringer's Gamble Ranch near Yountville was over and organizers had more time to compare final results.

When Perez, who has worked at V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena for 19 years, took the podium to accept a silver belt buckle, $700 and an assortment of new tools, she was announced simply as the top finisher in the women's division.

Not that that was an inconsequential honor. Asked afterward whether women are equal to men in the fields, Perez admired the belt buckle and said, "Yes, and here's the proof."

Jennifer Putnam, executive director and CEO of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, which sponsored Thursday's event, hailed Perez's performance as "groundbreaking."

Thursday's competition may have marked the first time in California that women were afforded the opportunity to participate in a vineyard pruning competition. Putnam said organizers researched the issue and could not find another example. Next Friday's pruning contest in Forestville for Sonoma County vineyard workers hews to the standard all-male field.

Thirteen women, most who've worked in vineyards for at least a decade, participated in Thursday's competition, alongside 56 men.

For Maria Fuentes, 60, the event offered the first opportunity since she started working in the vineyards in the 1970s to test her skills against the best. The grandmother of four moved quickly down a row of merlot vines, shearing excess growth as a judge with a stopwatch timed her speed.

Fuentes didn't make it to the final round. She didn't seem to mind.

"It doesn't matter if I win," she said in Spanish. "It's important to participate."

Victoria Avina, 28, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "This is the first time women are being recognized for the work they do in the valley."

All of the women polled Thursday admitted to being nervous, as much due to the competition as to the inordinate amount of attention the event drew. With news photographers clicking away, the women each took turns pruning six vines in the initial round of competition, as judges hovered nearby.

Pruning is critical to ensure healthy growth and fruit production, said Remi Cohen, a competition judge and director of viticulture and winemaking at Cliff Lede Winery.

Workers generally spend 8 to 10 hours daily in the fields during pruning season, which typically lasts from January through April. Cohen called pruning "meditative," but also challenging work, as the repetitive use of the shears can be tiring. Pruners also must pull sheared wood away from the vine so that it can be cultivated back into the soil.

Competitors Thursday were judged more on technique than speed. Points were deducted for mistakes such as split or jagged cuts, making cuts too close or too far from the bud, failing to remove sucker vines and not clearing away debris.

The six female and eight male finalists went to a prune-off. Omar Perez, who works at Joseph Phelps Winery, was the top men's finisher.

It's difficult to say whether Thursday's competition reflected an increase in the number of women working in vineyards. Anecdotally, vineyard managers say they have more women working on their crews than ever.

Mary Maher, herself a trailblazer as vineyard manager for Harlan Estate, said her crew of 50 includes eight women, all of whom, she said, are eager and willing to do jobs traditionally viewed as men's work.

"We want to give equal opportunity to everyone. I haven't had a women back away from it," said Maher, who oversaw Thursday's competition.

Maria Dobres, who took third place in the contest, is a vineyard supervisor at Harlan, managing a crew of seven women and eight men.

Dobres said it's "heavy work, hard work," but that she's never felt inferior to men.

"It's fine," she said. "I get good support."

Paul Asmuth, Dobres' former boss at The Napa Valley Reserve, a members-only winery in St. Helena, came up with the idea of a women's division for the pruning competition, according to Putnam.

Asmuth said female vineyard workers had told him over the years that they didn't want to participate in the event because they didn't want to compete against men.

"I respect that," Asmuth said.

But given Perez's astounding performance Thursday, there may be pressure next year to open the field, not just in Napa County, but everywhere vineyards grow.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)