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Face of Caldwell: Ron Bitner

Bitner Vineyards founder is helping a new industry transform Caldwell

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There's no telling what a good neighbor can do for you. In Ron Bitner's case, the folks next door changed his life. It was 1979 and Bitner, a Midvale native, had just purchased 15 acres in the Sunnyslope area near Caldwell. Building his own house down the hill was Bill Broich, the first winemaker for Ste. Chapelle Winery, which was under construction less than five miles away.

"In a discussion with him about what I should do with my sagebrush-covered south-facing slopes, he suggested that I had a world-class site for growing chardonnay," Bitner said. "I remember telling Bill, 'That is great, but what is chardonnay?'"

Bitner might have been a stranger to wine production but not to agriculture. With a Ph.D. from Utah State University--where he studied the alfalfa leafcutting bee--he settled in the Treasure Valley, working in seed production for Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

Following Broich's advice, Bitner took the first step toward founding Bitner Vineyards (bitnervineyards.com), which has grown since the first planting in 1981 to produce enough grapes for 3,000 cases of wine a year--grapes that go to other wineries, as well as 1,200 cases of estate-grown wine from seven varieties.

"When I first planted in 1981, there were two wineries in the state--Washington state had around 20, but now has over 700. We currently have 50 wineries and are growing annually," Bitner said.

From two wineries to 50 in 32 years means there's something about Idaho that makes for good wine. Bitner should know; he worked with other producers to obtain Idaho's first appellation in 2007--a federal designation that declares grapes from a certain area are unique.

"Our Snake River Valley appellation was based on the shorelines of the ancient Lake Idaho that made up 8,500 square miles of Southwest Idaho," Bitner said, adding that lake-bottom sediment and past volcanic activity help produce the unique flavors found in local wines. "Getting the appellation has shown the rest of the country that Idaho is a serious grape-producing area."

Beyond wine, Bitner and his wife and business partner, Mary, are big College of Idaho boosters--Ron is an alum and Mary worked in alumni relations. They started the annual Taste of the Harvest Festival at the college, with proceeds going to scholarships for Hispanic students. The couple is also involved in the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce and St. Luke's Nampa Advisory Committee.

At the winery, Bitner is working with other local vintners to promote the Snake River Wine Trail Region of Sunnyslope and, in 2008, planted French black truffle-infused hazelnut and oak trees.

"We are leaving in mid-June for Mexico City to promote our wines there and just continue having fun watching the Idaho wine industry grow," Bitner said.