With speed and precision, Fernando Gutierrez sliced through the bare, arching canes of five syrah grapevines and won the 13th annual Sonoma County Pruning Championship on Friday outside Forestville.
Gutierrez, a worker for VinePro Vineyard Management of Geyserville, pruned and pulled away canes for five minutes before triumphing over eight other contestants in a yearly event that calls for fast thinking and skillful cuts to prepare the vines for the best growth in the coming season.
For his efforts, the 38-year-old Gutierrez won $1,000, tools and other prizes worth hundreds of dollars. The event was sponsored by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
It was Gutierrez's second victory. He last won the county contest in 2009.
On Friday he credited those who had helped him first learn pruning 11 years ago. That was about seven years after he came to the United States from the state of Michoacan, Mexico.
Gutierrez noted that his fellow contestants all had qualified for Friday's finals with first- or second-place finishes at regional competitions.
"If they made it this far, they have to be good," he said in Spanish.
His words were translated by his son, Luis, a freshman at Cloverdale High School. Luis Gutierrez also had been present at his father's victory three years ago, and he credited Friday's first place not only to his father's best effort but also "because I was here" to watch.
The contest Friday at Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm gave more than 100 vineyard managers, workers and guests the chance to bask in sunshine while standing in a vineyard encircled by large trees and capped with blue sky.
The managers said the contest is a way of recognizing men who play a critical role in the production of wine grapes, the North Coast's premier agricultural crop, which last year brought in $869 million to the region.
"It's really to honor the hard work and the skills needed," said Duff Bevill, a Dry Creek Valley grape grower and owner of Bevill Vineyard Management.
Nick Frey, the winegrape commission president, said proper pruning sets the stage for good grape yield and quality, and can even save labor costs later in the season when managing the growth of the canes.
"It's a critical first step," Frey said.
More than 90 workers competed in five preliminary contests held in the county earlier this month. Of those, 10 contestants qualified for the finals and nine competed Friday.
In the contest, each worker had their own row of trellised syrah vines. The L-shaped vines were festooned with leafless canes that ranged in length from about 4 to 15 feet.
A syrah vine "grows like a weed," explained Merilark Padgett-Johnson, the junior college's viticulture program coordinator. She demonstrated for guests how to trim the canes, keeping two buds beneath the cut that will sprout new shoots in the coming season.
Contestants are judged for both their speed and the quality of their work. Points can be deducted for cutting the cane too close to a bud or too far from it. Points are added when a worker fashions a "renewal spur" to allow for a future year's growth of canes.
In the contest, second place went to Servando Rojas of Enrique's Vineyard Management. Jose Elias Avila of Bacchus Vineyard Management was third, and Heladio Garcia of Clendenen Vineyard Management placed fourth.