Thirty-three years ago, a young man planted a vineyard at his home on Sunny Slope. Having spent summers in the area as a child, he knew he wanted to live in the area, with its breathtaking view of the Snake River and the Owyhee Mountains. He had been encouraged to grow grapes by neighbor and Ste. Chapelle Vineyard owner, Bill Broich, who told them the hillsides were capable of producing world-class chardonnay. With the passing years, Ron Bitner found the advice to be very sound, and Bitner Vineyards is one of the most notable wineries in the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area.
Bitner Vineyards is made up of 15 acres of wine grapes. With its first plantings of Riesling and Chardonnay grapes taking place in 1981, these vines are some of the oldest blocks in Idaho. The winery sits atop high volcanic ash and old lake bottom sediment soils. The high mountain desert climate with hot summer days, cool evenings and low rainfall results in long hang times that give intense fruit forward and well balanced wines.
Dr. Ron Bitner is a specialized entomologist who received his PhD in 1976 from Utah State University. His extensive work with bees has allowed him to travel extensively both nationally and internationally. Bitner spent nine seasons working in Australia, not only studying bees, but also enjoying the Australian wine country. The experiences he gained while in Australia have had a strong impact on the style of Bitner’s wines. The plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and “Shiraz” grapes were for the sole purpose of producing Australian style wines.
In 1995, Bitner Vineyards began working with winemaker Greg Koenig, owner of Koenig Distillery and Winery, who has won much recognition and many awards for his wines. In 1997, Koenig began making small quantities of Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Chardonnay, which the Bitner’s now proudly market under the Bitner Vineyards label. The Bitners like to refer to Koenig as their “retirement plan.”
Bitner is not only at the forefront of the local wine grape-growing community, but is also leading the local wine industry by his involvement in national and international programs. Recently, Bitner became the first wine grape grower in Idaho to earn Low-Input Viticulture and Enology certification for sustainable agriculture. Also, Bitner is currently the Intermountain Representative to the Wine America Board and past President of the National Wine Grape Growers Association.
Another crop has recently been added at Bitner Vineyards; one that is a rarity in the region. Within the next few years, they are hoping to establish a truffle industry in the Snake River Valley. In 2008, Paul Beckman encouraged Bitner to attend a workshop on truffles in Eugene, Oregon and to plant hazelnut and white oak trees containing the spores of French Black Truffles in one section of his property.
Recently, the Bitner’s have had Italian dogs trained in locating truffles out to their property to see if there are any of the valuable fungi growing. “They didn’t find anything yet, but it was fun to get people out here to see that,” said Bitner. “We’ve been told it takes eight to nine years before they start producing truffles, and my trees are only six years old, so we’re just sitting back and waiting.”
Truffles or no, Bitner Vineyards continues to grow in renown with the stylized estate red wines made by Koenig. Production has now increased to 1,200 cases a year, with 90 percent of sales occurring directly from the vineyard’s tasting room. “Last year, we had nearly 5,000 people through our tasting room,” Bitner said. “That may not be a lot for some people, but it’s good for us, and it keeps getting better each year.”
Bitner’s wife, Mary, manages the tasting room as well as the Bed & Breakfast, which is located above their vineyard with a breathtaking view of the Snake River Valley, Lizard Butte, and the Owyhees in the distance. The tasting room and deck are an excellent place to relax and enjoy the fruit of these old vines while enjoying the scenery.
Through an ingenious spark of an idea, Mary’s Menopause Merlot has gained quite the following and there continues to be a high demand. “We’re doing 100 cases of it this year because it’s gone in just two or three months,” Ron Bitner said.
Mary’s Menopause Merlot is not the only Bitner wine with a personal touch. Each wine is very sentimental to Bitner, who has created a life for his family through growing and cultivating these grapes. “Being asked my favorite wine is like asking me my favorite child,” said Bitner. “It’s impossible to choose.”
An example of the personal feeling given each wine can be found in Bitner’s port, which is specially produced in small quantities. Each barrel is lovingly named after a grandchild.
If you need more reasons to visit Bitner Vineyards, aside from the views and excellent wines, there are a series of events throughout the spring and summer that will entice you to visit Plum Road. The events page on their website is constantly updated with live entertainment and other happenings.
Bitner Vineyards is located at 16645 Plum Road in Caldwell. They can be reached by phone at 208.455.1870. More information can be found at their website, www.bitnervineyards.com.
See the online version of this article, which was published in the April-May Issue of the UL Magazine.