The winter sun is shining brightly for the finals of the Napa County Pruning Contest, the annual rite that pits the valley’s best vineyard workers against each other in a contest of skill and speed.
Eyes narrowed, lips fixed in firm lines, the finalists work their way down the rows with mathematical precision, snipping the overgrown vines at just the right spot and tearing away the dead canes in one fluid movement.
They’re the best-of-the-best, the workers who’ve been chosen to represent their wineries and management companies, and they’re ready to fight hard for cash prizes, championship buckles and, not least important, bragging rights.
Women in the Vineyards
This year, for the third year in a row, some of the workers out to prove who’s the best person at the job are women.
“We have been very enthusiastically embracing the fact that more and more women are part of the workforce,” says Steven P. Moulds, owner of Moulds Family Vineyard and president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, or NVG.
Women have worked in the wine industry for years, as winemakers, in tasting rooms, working seasonal jobs like grape-sorting, and more. But women working in the fields is a more recent phenomenon, one that picked up speed after the 2008 recession when jobs elsewhere disappeared.
Today, there are quite a few women to be found in the vineyards and there are even a few all-woman “A” crews–highly skilled teams who are much sought after for harvest. In fact, Moulds hired an all-woman crew last harvest. “We like their work style and their attitude,” he says.
The pruning contest was opened to women in 2014 after organizers decided there’d been enough of a cultural shift that women would be comfortable competing. The divisions are kept separate–this year there were 85 contestants in the men’s division and 13 in the women’s.
The debut of women in the competition was a resounding success. That first year, organizers finished the competition and later realized the top-scoring woman actually beat the male first-place finisher. That didn’t happen this year, although the scores were close.
The contest, now in its 15th year, highlights the important work farmworkers do in winter to set the stage for the growing season, trimming back the previous year’s growth and making the cuts that the viticulturist considers most likely to make for a good harvest. Pruning shapes the cordon, or “arms” of the vines; the number of buds left determine how many grape clusters the vine will bear.
Different terrains and varieties require different styles of pruning, but for the contest, the chosen style is vertical shoot positioning, or VSP, a commonly used trellising system in which vine shoots are trained upward. There are specific rules contestants have to follow–points are deducted for things such as cutting too close to the buds or leaving too many buds. Sixty percent of the score is based on speed, 40 percent on quality.
Contests begin with the scrape of steel on steel as shears are sharpened, a kind of orchestral tune-up, and then there’s almost total silence as workers file into the rows–only the snick-snack of shears meeting vine and the dry rustle of discarded canes being dragged away can be heard.
Vineyards send only their top people to the contest, holding preliminary contests to see who has the best chance. “You can see that the people here are the best of the best,” says Moulds.
The Napa Valley is unusual in having a largely hands-on workforce for both pruning and harvesting, due partly to boutique wineries preferring hand labor as more precise than machines as well as to the valley terrain. Many vineyards are on slopes with tight terracing that isn’t tractor-friendly.
Automated pruners exist, are widely used in other areas, and may one day gain acceptance in the Napa Valley, but so far are not the norm.
The Napa Valley also is home to a number of wineries that have moved away from seasonal hiring to working mostly with year-round crews, who are full-time employees with health insurance and other benefits. Pay remains low, though, and it can be a problem for new workers to finding housing close to their work due to the high cost of living in the valley.
The contest, held at the Beringer Vineyards Gamble Ranch in Yountville, is one of dozens of activities produced by the NVG Farmworker Foundation to support vineyard workers and their families. The top eight winners, four men, four women, this year took more than $4,500 in cash prizes as well as tools, clothing and the first-place trophy buckles.
The foundation, which provides training and other programs for farmworkers, has been trying to incorporate families into more activities and next year may expand the event to include competitors’ families, says Moulds, so the children can take pride seeing what their mothers and fathers do.
This year’s event ended with lunch, music and a chance to relax at picnic tables set up on the ranch, already ablaze with the yellow mustard that is a hallmark of the valley in later winter.
For the record, both first-place finishers made the same prize money, $950.
Afterwards, reporters asked the women’s champion how she felt about the win.
“Muy bueno,” she said–very good.