Ron Bitner, vineyard owner and manager near Caldwell, Idaho, came into the business in a roundabout way. He grew up in Midvale but spent summers with an aunt and uncle in Sunnyslope — southwest of Caldwell — and fell in love with the area. After graduating from the College of Idaho in Caldwell in 1968 he went to graduate school at Purdue University, with a research grant to study native bees of Indiana.
He came back to Utah State University for his Ph.D., with a research grant to study alfalfa leafcutter bees. “This bee had just been discovered and plays a major role in several crops. I’ve been involved with that little bee ever since,” Bitner said.
In 1974 he moved back to Idaho and worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the first alfalfa seed production company that relied on leafcutter bees. During the mid-1980s he worked for the University of Idaho as an integrated pest management specialist.
In 1995 the Australian government asked him to work with native bees in Australia, and help bring alfalfa leafcutter bees from Canada to Australia.
“I spent 11 years going back and forth between central Idaho and Australia to introduce that little bee,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’d bought property in Sunnyslope because he’d grown up with fond memories of the fruit-growing region.
“Ste. Chapelle was building a winery and planting grapes. Their first winemaker was my neighbor below me on the hill. He convinced me to plant wine grapes,” Bitner said.
His property sits on a steep hillside above the Snake River, and is perfect for growing wine grapes. “I began planting my vineyards — 15 acres — in 1981.”
Early on he sold most of his grapes to Ste. Chapelle, a few miles down the road.
“I was also working with alfalfa seed production with leafcutter bees on several thousand acres in Idaho and Washington,” he said. “That’s how my vineyard business got started — because of my passion for bees. My goal was to grow grapes without using very many chemicals in my vineyard.”
“I am trying to educate neighborhood farmers, telling them that when they see bugs they shouldn’t just spray, because some bugs are beneficial. I plant many native bee-friendly plants around my place, just for the bees,” he said.
His wife, Mary, and one daughter work at their small winery, and other family members help when they can. “By keeping it small, we can do high-end wines. Many people want wines that don’t have chemicals used in growing. We have 1,300-case production annually and don’t want to be any bigger. In our wine room we have a very strong wine club — people who are loyal to us.”
One of his interests is helping the Idaho wine industry. He was a founding member of the Idaho Wine Commission and led the group in applying for Idaho’s first American Viticultural Area, the Snake River Valley. When he planted his vineyards, there were only two wineries in the state. Now there are more than 50.
This region grows good wine grapes, and Bitner worked with other producers to obtain Idaho’s first appellation in 2007, a federal designation that declares grapes from a certain area are unique. The Snake River Valley is on the shorelines of what was once an ancient lake. The lake-bottom sediment and volcanic activity created soils that help produce the unique flavors found in local wines.
“This is what I am doing, at age 72, giving back to the community. Mary and I started some scholarships 14 years ago, to help Hispanic kids go to the College of Idaho.”
Bitner also helps farmers try to keep their land, and stays busy enjoying his vineyards. “I’ve been growing grapes now for 40 years, and I feel blessed being able to make a living doing what I love to do.”