Ron Bitner admits wine was the furthest thing from his mind when he purchased the acreage in 1980 for his home near Caldwell, Idaho.
"Bill Broach, the first winemaker for Ste. Chapelle, built his house right below us," Bitner recalls. "I bought the property for the view of the Snake River, and I was scratching my head wondering what I was going to do with this steep hillside.
"It was sagebrush and weeds then, and Bill says to me, 'Ron, you've got a world-class site for Chardonnay there.'
" 'That's cool, Bill, but what's Chardonnay?' " Bitner replied. "I had no clue about wine grapes back then."
Three decades later, he and his wife, Mary, can pour a glass of estate reserve Chardonnay to toast Bitner Vineyards as Wine Press Northwest's 2009 Idaho Winery of the Year.
"I'm trying to retire as a bee biologist and just devote all my time to the winery with my wife," Bitner said. "We're having a blast with it. After 28 years, the wine industry in Idaho is finally catching on, so it's exciting for me. It's a fun time."
It's also rewarding. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon grabbed a gold medal at the 2008 Idaho Wine Festival. Four of his wines returned medals in the 2008 Northwest Wine Summit. His 2006 Riesling and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz received silver, while his 2005 Reserve Chardonnay and 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon picked up bronze. The same Riesling and Cab-Shiraz won silver medals at the IWF and a silver and gold, respectively, at the VinoChallenge in Atlanta. The 2006 Late Harvest Riesling took double gold and best dessert wine at the Florida State Competition.
"We've been most blessed to have Greg Koenig as our winemaker since 1995," Bitner said.
Bitner, 62, owns 15 acres in his native Canyon County, most of it planted in Riesling and Chardonnay with the rest in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah, which he refers to as Shiraz.
"I spend a lot of time in Australia researching bees," he said with a smile.
That ended up being about six months each year, but whenever Bitner returned to Idaho, he found himself busy as a bee in the Idaho wine industry.
He spent eight years on the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission, two of those as acting director.
Bitner was instrumental on the petition that established the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area in 2007.
"There's been a lot of excitement with that," he said. "We've had three Washington wineries and one Michigan winery that have shown interest in my fruit. That AVA has made all the difference."
Now, he's part of Canyon County's Rural Economic Task Force.
"We got the first agriculture scenic bypass established in the state, and there will finally be winery tourism signs along the way," he said. "There were two more new wineries opening out here this year."
Bitner Vineyards opened its tasting room in 2007. It has the vibe of a wine bar, occasionally showing classic movies and serving dinner.
"A lot of what we're doing here I have to give credit to old friends Jerry and John Bookwalter for what they've done in the Tri-Cities," Bitner said.
There are two other projects the Bitners are working on. Mary is busy converting their downstairs into a bed & breakfast. And last year, Ron attended a workshop in Eugene, Ore., that inspired him to plant 200 hazelnut and white oak trees infused with French black truffle spores.
"I came back convinced that's the next crop for the Sunnyslope of Idaho," Bitner said. "In five or six years, hopefully we'll be digging truffles to serve on our deck with our great Chardonnay."
Bitner Vineyards, 16645 Plum Rd., Caldwell, Idaho, 83605, 208-899-7648, bitnervineyards.com.