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Napa Valley winemakers know wildfire risk still present even after winter's heavy rains

Napa Valley winemakers optimistic despite ongoing wildfire risk
Napa Valley winemakers optimistic despite ongoing wildfire risk 02:53

NAPA -- For the first time in several years, Napa Valley winemakers are heading into the summertime without a drought and with a dampened fire risk. But after years of drought-fueled wildfires in the region, it wouldn't take much for that risk to increase.

On a June Day at Baldacci Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, the remnants of rare rainfall could be seen on Michael Baldacci's grapevines during his routine walk to inspect his vineyard.

"The vines are really showing a lot of energy," he said.

Napa winery owner Michael Baldacci
Napa winery owner Michael Baldacci. CBS

His observation makes sense, considering this year's weather knocked out the drought. While it's too early to tell how good the quality of the grapes will be, he's confident these plants will produce a great vintage.

"It feels amazing. It feels super exciting that we know there is water below us," he said.

The hillsides beyond his vineyard don't look as parched as they have in years past, either.

"We may have less sleepless nights worrying about potential for fire," he said.

In Napa Valley, however, fire threat is always top of mind during the summertime.

"It's something that we've learned to live with," he said. "The 2017 fire - that hillside right there was on fire. The only thing separating us from that fire was the Silverado Trail."

Even though this year has shown to be mild and wet, Baldacci says folks aren't letting their guards down.

"Whether it be for us - we have goats on our hillside grazing all year long - to taking out trees that could be potentially more fuel for the fires - we've all worked together as a community to kind of, lighten that load," he said. "We do everything that we can to protect ourselves here and create as little to no fuel as possible on the vineyard, and that's really all that we can do, I think."

Craig Clements is the director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. He routinely measures fuel moisture levels.

"Last year, severe drought period, we actually had almost full curing by April 1st. This year, fully cured by late May/June 1st - so a completely different scenario," he said.

His prognosis for this season?

"Generally, this could be a shorter season just because of the winter precipitation that we had," he said.
However, he says Baldacci's mindset is spot on.

"Even though we've had a wet winter and our fire risk is currently low, it doesn't mean that we won't have potential for large fires in the fall or late summer," Clements said. "When we get into fall, it could get back into high risk because that's the time period where we get our off-shore wind events, and we have our lowest live fuel moistures."

All it could take, he says, is an extended heat wave.

"If we get a heat wave, that's really going to change the fuel moisture conditions," he said. "If we have an extended heat wave - that can put us right back into high fire danger."

Aside from shortening fire season, the cooler weather and abundant rainfall pushed back Baldacci's harvest timetable, likely to October, which could help him avoid a challenge that he ran into last year.

"It was a really tough harvest just because of the heat that we had during the harvest time," Baldacci said.
After several tough summers, Baldacci is eager to see what this one has in store.

"I think the vines are going to be resilient and ready for anything," he said.

But even though it's off to a good start, he says it's always key to remember that Mother Nature is always in charge.

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