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Winemaking Without Glamour

Every now and then, supersophisticated, rich-people-paradise Napa Valley shows its farm-country roots. Last week, in finest county fair tradition, the 11th Annual Napa County Pruning Contest brought 80 vineyard hands out on a gray Winter day to demonstrate their arcane skill. Pruning the vines is a critical aspect of making wine, and most self-described wine experts don’t bother to understand it, since doing so involves walking in mud and skipping free wine tastings.

In this video, manic pruners compete on speed and quality of work.

I love to watch people who are good at their job; there’s beauty and intensity in work well done. And, to be honest, something really relaxing about watching other people work.

A few years ago I went with a bunch of wine writers out into a vineyard for a lesson in pruning vines. We worked until we grew so weary we could no longer go without water and a catered lunch — about fifteen minutes. I’ve always wondered if the vineyard kept data on production from the two rows of vines we slaughtered. I’m guessing it was down, and it wouldn’t surprise me all that much if we had somehow trimmed the vines into producing soybeans instead of grapes.

The winner of the contest was Jose Juan Tellez of Gallegos Vineyards in St. Helena. He will next go on to the world tournament to be held in Bordeaux in March, where cheering crowds will salute his craftsmanship.

Just kidding. He’ll go back to the vineyard where he will continue to be among the best in the world at his backbreaking and nearly invisible job. Not once will anyone tasting the excellent wine helps produce stop to say, “Man, those guys pruning the vines really know their stuff.”

I’ve looked, by the way, and there is no similar competition for mohelim. Though if you take a minute to imagine what that particular contest might look like, it will change your life forever.