Sonoma County vineyard workers compete in pruning championship

Under clear, early-morning skies and with temperatures close to freezing, 38 vineyard workers from across Sonoma County came out to Shone Farm in Forestville to compete for best pruner in the region.

The contest symbolically kicks off the growing season for Sonoma County’s main agricultural crop, which brought in $572 million last year across almost ?60,000 acres of grapes.

The winner was Rosendo Avila of Emeritus Vineyards in Sebastopol, who also won in 2015. Samuel Campos of Vimark Vineyard Management in Geyserville finished second and Javier Diaz Correa of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor placed third.

Top prize was $1,000 cash as well as various tools, such as shears and knives. Contestants were judged on speed as well as the accuracy of the cuts.

Workers must get pruning done before bud break occurs; it varies around the county but typically occurs in March. It’s crucial work that allows the grape clusters to spread out evenly as well as bloom properly. It even helps determine when the grapes will be sufficiently ripe to pick in the summer and fall.

However, the heavy rains this winter have delayed much of the work, forcing crews to pick up the pace as the weather improves.

“We don’t prune in the rain due to disease issues, so we lost lots of days to rain. Having these guys out here is kind of tough,” said Kirk Lokka, vineyard manager of Emeritus Vineyards. A rule of thumb is a worker can prune about 250 vines per day.

Emeritus has had about 85 percent of its vineyards pruned so far and it should finish completely within two weeks, Lokka said.

Even once that is done, Lokka has to worry about the next step in the growing season, taking precautions to protect young, tender buds from possible frost damage.

A few areas around the Russian River Valley have had “a little, little bit” of bud break already, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which sponsored the event that has been held for 18 consecutive years.

“We’re actually later already than we were last year for bud break. It hasn’t gotten hot enough. The temperatures kept it cooler,” Kruse said. “If it starts to warm up, there is going to be a big push in the next week.”

The contest occurred as the local industry - estimated to be around 5,000 full-time workers, almost all of whom are Latino - is faced with a labor shortage due to beefed up immigration restrictions as well as competition from other industries such as construction. In response, wineries are increasingly using machines in the vineyards for harvesting and other work, including pruning.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter ?@BillSwindell.

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