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Western innovator: Bee biologist explores winegrapes

Bitners join effort to put Idaho wines on global stage


Capital Press

CALDWELL, Idaho -- Ron Bitner, an Idaho native and internationally known bee biologist, purchased sagebrush-covered property near Caldwell 32 years ago for the view.

"It turns out it's a great spot on this earth to grow winegrapes," Bitner said.

While Bitner considers himself a bee biologist first, he has also become good at growing winegrapes, with the help of his wife, Mary, who worked for a 100,000-acre farm in California's central valley before marrying Ron and moving to Idaho in 1998.

Ron Bitner, 66, is a past president of the National Wine Grape Growers Association, and Bitner Vineyards was chosen as Wine Press Northwest's 2009 Idaho winery of the year.

When Ron began growing winegrapes on 16 acres in 1981, there were two wineries in Idaho. Today, there are 50 and he and Mary's contributions to the local industry are part of the reason for that growth.

The Bitners are part of a core group of people who are trying to make Idaho an internationally recognized winegrape growing region. That effort was partly rewarded in 2007 when the Snake River Valley in southwestern Idaho received the state's first American Viticultural Area designation.

"I always tell people, we should be real proud of the wine we are starting to showcase in this area," said Mary Bitner, 56, who manages the day-to-day operations of Bitner Vineyards as well as the winery's bed and breakfast operation.

During his global travels as a recognized authority of leafcutter bees, Ron was introduced to the Australian world of vineyards and wines.

"I was in Australia studying bees but fell in love with the Australian wines," he said, adding that southwest Idaho has perfect soils, water, weather and climate to grow world-class winegrapes.

"As a bee biologist, I've traveled around the world and seen a lot of great wineries," he said. "I wouldn't trade this spot for any other spot on earth."

The Bitners recently began trying their hand at producing truffles and have planted an acre of hazelnut and oak trees inoculated with spores of the French black truffle.

They are part of a new group called Destination Sunnyslope, which was formed to promote agritourism in that region along the Snake River.

Bitner Vineyards belongs to the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce and the Bitners are on the board of the Snake River Scenic Biway, the only scenic biway in Idaho based on agriculture, as well as the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's Idaho Preferred program.

The Bitners were chosen as the Nampa/Caldwell Chamber of Commerce's 2013 farm family of the year.

Linda Ramsey, chairman of the chamber's agribusiness committee, said the Bitners were chosen because of their lifelong commitment to agriculture at all levels, "from a worldwide scale, to national and statewide involvements and all the way down to their Canyon County vineyard."

Ron and Mary Bitner

Background: Ron is an Idaho native and internationally known bee biologist and Mary grew up working with her family on farms in California's central valley

Business: Owners of Bitner Vineyards

Location: Caldwell, Idaho

Awards: Nampa and Caldwell Chambers of Commerce 2013 farm family of the year; Wine Press Northwest's 2009 Idaho winery of the year

Education: Ron attended College of Idaho, Purdue University and Utah State University and has a doctorate in entomology with a focus on bee biology

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