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On Friday morning, deep in the vines at Norgard’s
Vineyards, across Old River Road from Seebass Vineyards, some of the county’s
finest gathered. “It’s like the Olympics,” said Ben Byczynski, Director
of Vineyards and Grower Relations at Fetzer. “These guys are the best of
the best.” Byczynski and Dave Koball, Director of Research and Education at
Fetzer, formed one of two teams of judges, appraising the work of the
twenty-four competitors.

It was the 15th annual pruning contest, the fourth one organized by Mendocino
Winegrowers Inc. Dave Downey, of Downey Vineyard Management, explained that “we
try to get the top guys…to get a good competition.”

Jesus Garcia, also of Downey Vineyard Management, was eliminated in an early
round, but said it was an honor to be invited to compete. “Maybe next year,” he
said of his own chances at winning. Asked who he thought was likely to win this
year, he hesitated only long enough to locate a powerfully built man with
a beard and a youthful appearance. “Him,” he said calmly, like someone had just
asked him if he thought the sun was going to rise tomorrow.

Gregorio Velasquez, number 21, clearly knew what he was doing. He took an easy
stance in front of his vine, crouching like a boxer. He was utterly relaxed,
and his concentration was perfect. He moved lightly on his feet, grasping the
severed branches in his left hand as he clipped them with his right. He
ripped them from the wires with exactly as much force as he needed, and slapped
them down in the middle of the row. He did not appear to be moving fast, but
just a little more than five minutes later, he stepped away from his vines and raised his arms in the
air. His eyes were bright, and he was breathing evenly through his nose.

Each competitor was judged on how long he took to prune five vines to a high
level of quality. Two judges at a time went down the rows, one on each side.
They were there to assess the quality of the cut, how close it was to the buds,
how many dry spurs were left on the vine, and if debris had been left on
the wire or in the lane. That’s just an excerpt of the page-long list of
possible deficiencies when you’re trying to prune a vine in a hurry.

The judges were taking it as seriously as the competitors, scrutinizing and
discussing each cut. “I’m tough, man,” Byczynski said; but he agreed with
Koball when they came to a thick dry unit that had been left on a vine. “If I
was a guy pruning, I’d shine that too,” Koball concluded; “because it
would take more than five seconds to muscle through.” They discussed a presentation
they had recently heard in Napa, regarding the flow of the sap through the
vascular tissue of the plant, and counted the number of buds left on the
vines. “Like a lot of things in farming,” Koball said, “it’s a science and an
art.” Each cut represents a judgement call.

Glenn T. McCourty, a Winegrowing and Plant Science Advisor with the Mendocino
County Ag Center, was keeping time at the contest. “I hope this doesn’t
disappear in the near future,” he remarked, adding that he saw a great deal of
mechanical pruning in the South of France, where labor is costly. He
described the pruning machine as like “a series of knives” that “makes the vine
look like a box.” Still, he acknowledged, the machine is faster than the
fastest set of human hands.

But no machine ever accepted a prize in front of all its friends, who stood
around in the sun admiring its work. After the raffle, where competitors
received prizes ranging from baseball caps to a leaf blower, the winners were
announced. Marcos Lopez, of Ardzrooni Vineyard Management in Philo, took
third place, with a prize of $150 and a pair of pruning shears. Salvador
Gutierrez, the champion from 2012, won second place this year, with $300 and a
pair of shears.

And Jesus Garcia was right: Gregorio Velasquez, of Seebass Vineyard’s vendor
Chevalier Vineyard Management, one of the premier vineyard and viticultural
businesses in Mendocino County, won the grand prize of $500 and a basket full
of tools, with an estimated value of $400. According to Bernadette Byrne,
Executive Director of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc., Chevalier will match the
prize he received from MWI, and give him “a fancy new Chevalier jacket.”

“Chevalier Vineyard Management has been farming our family’s estate vineyard
for over 25 years,” said Scott Willoughby, Director Marketing and President of
The Board of Directors of MWI, “their work in our vineyards has always been an
important part of our crop’s success, and now the critical acclaim our
Family Wines are achieving. We sell each year around 400 tons of grapes, and
use only our Estate-grown grapes in our brand Seebass Family Wines. Our 2014
Grand Reserve Chardonnay won Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco
Chronicle Wine Competition in January, and our 2014 Family Chardonnay got First
Prize a week ago at the Mendocino Coast Clinic’s (anything but) Crab Cake
Cook-off and Wine Competition, in the professional judges category. The
Chevalier family has always worked very hard to help us grow premium fruit here
in Mendocino County.”

This is the third win
for Velasquez, who started working in Mendocino vineyards twenty years ago,
when he was seventeen years old. Asked if he planned to celebrate his victory,
he simply smiled and said, “Yes.” Then he hoisted his basket of tools and joined his
colleagues, pausing every few feet to have his picture taken.

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