The woody, 15-year-old syrah vines resisted mightily, but vineyard worker Laureano Herrera cut quickly and skillfully enough to win Friday's 14th annual Sonoma County Pruning Championship near Forestville.
Herrera, 46, a Healdsburg resident who works for Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, outscored nine other contestants at Friday's competition outside Forestville. For his work, he received $1,000 cash and a wheelbarrow load of tools and other prizes.
A husband and father of five, Herrera has worked three decades in the vineyards and enjoys pruning for the opportunity it provides to correctly shape the vines.
Through an interpreter, he said that as he is pruning one cane, he is "already looking at the next ones" and considering his next cut.
The competition, sponsored by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, celebrates the skills of the workers who help produce the North Coast's most valuable crop. Wine grapes last year brought the region's farmers $1.4 billion.
Friday's 10 contestants all had placed first or second in five regional contests held earlier this month, beating out about 100 other workers.
"They're the best of the best," said Nick Frey, president of the winegrape commission.
However, the men were greatly challenged Friday by the trellised syrah vines at Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm.
In the regionals, virtually all 10 contestants had finished pruning five vines in less than four minutes. But Friday Herrera finished first at six minutes, 31 seconds. The last contestant finished shortly under nine minutes.
"This is tough pruning," said Jim Neumiller, a judge and vineyard manager for Seghesio Farms. He and fellow judges Kirk Lokka of Emeritus Vineyard and Winery and Joel Castaneda of Vineyard Industry Products explained that the syrah vines are especially vigorous, producing extra canes that easily tangle and take more time to cut and remove.
The judges also required considerably more time Friday to calculate each contestant's skill score. Points were deducted for improper cuts and bonuses were added for preparing "renewal" spurs that make a place on the vine for cane growth a year from now.
The three judges were still examining the pruning work long after the crowd of about 120 had departed the spring-like sunshine of the vineyard and taken seats around tables in the farm's main pavilion.
There, the guests learned that Herrera not only posted the quickest time but also came in second in points for the quality of his pruning.
The day was a big one for Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, with workers taking both first and second place. Its other contestant, Javier Diaz, received $500 for his second-place finish.
Third place and $300 went to Gustavo Rico of Seghesio Farms. Fourth place and $200 went to Alberto Avina of Chateau St. Jean/Treasury Wine Estates.
Vineyard managers and experts said proper pruning is essential for the vines, preparing them for good grape yields. It also can reduce labor costs later when managing the growth of the canes.
"The pruning sets up the entire growth year," said Merilark Padgett-Johnson, the junior college's viticulture program coordinator.