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Viticulture in the Snake River Valley

Idaho wine industry is ready to roll
By Don Dale



Resources such as harvest labor, abundant water and inexpensive land are readily available for Idaho wine grape growers. Here a crew harvests chardonnay grapes at Bitner Vineyards.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF RON BITNER.

There isn't a lot that escapes the attention of Ron Bitner when it comes to the wine industry in his native Idaho. He was there when the first vines of the modern planting era went into the ground, after all, and he planted some of them. What strikes him about the industry now is that it is small, but well-established, and it is poised for expansion.

In 1980, Bitner planted 15 acres of varietals on land along the Snake River that he originally bought just "for the view" in this striking landscape. There were almost no vines planted in the state at the time. Now his acreage, and much of the approximately 1,600 acres of wine grape vines planted in the state, has its own appellation of origin, the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area. A second appellation is being sought for Northern Idaho.

Bitner, who owns Bitner Vineyards in Sunnyslope with his wife, Mary, says that the climate here at 2,700 feet of elevation is ideal for some, but not all, wine grapes. Grape growers in the last 30 years have been involved in a sorting-out process in the search for varieties that will flourish here and produce quality wines. That process has yielded several adaptable varieties, and Bitner notes that some of the environmental and planting challenges that confront growers in other western states are virtually nonexistent in Idaho.

"Water hasn't been an issue with us for a while. Land prices are reasonably low. I think we're in a place to take off here," says Bitner, who has made his living for many years as a bee biologist, but now also spends a lot of time growing wine grapes. The sandy loam soil in the southwestern part of the state is proving to be an excellent growing medium, and the climate, though cold in the winter, is ideal for selected varieties of vines. The scarcity of rainfall - about 7 inches per year - is negated by the use of drip irrigation, and it discourages pests. He notes that there are few insects and fungal diseases to pose a financial threat to growers.

In fact, Bitner points out, this is the sec


Mary and Ron Bitner were some of the first wine grape planters in this modern era of Idaho vineyards, and now they have a bed and breakfast in Sunnyslope.
ond iteration of wine grape growing in the state. Muscadine grape vines were planted here as early as 1864, and the state was known for its quality wines over the next half-century. However, the advent of Prohibition in the early 20th century wiped out the industry, and it was not rekindled until the 1980s. In fact, it wasn't until about 15 years ago, Bitner says, that wine growers began to get specific advice from experts from other regions such as Australia, and the selection of proper varietals began to produce award-winning wines.

Bitner Vineyards, for example, started off planting Riesling and chardonnay vines on his 15 acres. Those varieties are still there, but have been joined in subsequent plantings by several reds, such as merlot and Petit Verdot. The primary varieties in the state as a whole are Riesling, chardonnay, pinot grigio and pinot gris. Bitner estimates that about 50 percent of the state's grapes are whites and 50 percent reds. Three vineyards in Canyon County currently own about 1,200 acres of the grape plantings, and many growers are also fruit growers. A study is currently underway to map Idaho's vineyards to determine an exact picture of the industry.

Moya Shatz, executive director of the Idaho Grape Growers & Wine Producers Commission, says that over 25 varieties of wine grapes are being produced in the state, and there is amazing potential for the planting of new acreage. The Snake River Valley AVA, for example, consists of about 8,000 square miles of land and includes the Boise area, the largest population center.

"We have 43 wineries, and 25 are clustered around the southwest corner of the state," Shatz says. This region sits on the site of an ancient lake bed and has excellent soil and climate conditions for grapes. The commission was initiated in 1984, funded by liquor and industry assessments. Its website, www.idahowines.org, reveals that there are many lesser-known wines such as syrah, cabernet franc and viognier being produced, as well as old favorites like cabernet sauvignon and Gew<0x00FC>rztraminer.

Shatz, who came to the commission in 2008 from its comparable organization in Washington State, says that Idaho is poised to become the next Washington as a wine producer. She points out that that state now has over 700 wineries, and the Idaho climate is very similar to eastern Washington. Twenty years ago, it was about where Idaho is now.

The land and vine establishment costs in Idaho are about $15,000 an acre, Shatz says. Although the 8,000 miles of the Snake River Valley AVA are pretty much available for planting, the prime acreage is on south-facing slopes, such as along the southern edge of the Snake River Valley. There has been a lot of interest in Idaho from producers in other wine-growing states such as California.

"Most wines made in Idaho are sold in Idaho," Shatz says of current marketing opportunities. There is still marketing potential within the state, because many citizens still aren't aware that local wines exist. Much of those wines are sold on-site through local winery tasting rooms and through restaurants in Boise, though the state's largest winery, Saint Chapellle Winery, markets nationally. Idaho's biggest marketing opportunity is Salt Lake City, Utah, where the commission is spending $17,000 this fiscal year in advertising.

Bitner, who manages 125 acres of vineyard in addition to his own 15, says that he and most other state growers plant under drip irrigation and trellis on vertical shoot position (VSP) trellising. They use two heights of wires to push fruit production and help open the vines to sunlight. There is a lot of hand-thinning of leaves and other practices that open the fruit up to the sun. In general, more leaves are removed from the north side of the vines, and more left on the south side to prevent damage to the grapes.

Planting here starts in March or April, with much of the acreage going in on 6-by-9-foot row configuration at 800 vines per acre. Drip lines are generally laid down at planting and hung from a wire later. Some growers prune as they plant, hoping to get significant fruit in the third year, but Bitner likes to promote vigorous root growth by letting the vines grow vegetatively the first year or two. Even if a freeze kills back the shoots, he's found that the plants come back just fine.

He recommends getting a soil test to establish a fertility baseline on a new planting, but the soils here are generally conducive to wine growth in their native condition. "I'm sitting here looking at my chardonnay vines below my deck, planted in 1980, and I've only fertilized them, I think, three times," Bitner says. He has used both compost and commercial fertilizers.

Few chemicals are needed, in other words, and that applies to pesticides, too. In 2010, for example, he used three mildew applications and two insecticide applications on his vines. The insecticide was for mealybugs, the primary pest on grapes at this time in the state, though there are occasional outbreaks of thrips that don't usually reach the economic threshold for spraying.

Hand-harvest is common on small vineyards, including Bitner's, but the larger vineyards utilize machine harvesting. With 100 different agricultural crops being grown in Canyon County, Bitner says, labor availability is good. There is a lot of trained, documented migrant labor, especially now that the home construction boom has died down. Most wineries, including the Koenig Distillery & Winery where Bitner has his crop processed, have modern processing facilities.


The south-facing slopes of the Snake River Valley in Idaho, such as here at Bitner Vineyards, have become prime wine grape growing ground.

"We try to keep up on the latest research and technology. We try to make our sugars and make good wines," says Bitner, who currently is chairman of the Winegrape Growers of America. Variety selection has been a key element. He says that so far the state has proven to be "not quite hot enough for zinfandel and too hot for pinot noir," but experimental plots around the state, including 40 varieties being tested by the USDA at a University of Idaho facility, could reveal new possibilities.


About 25 varieties of wine grapes, such as these cabernet sauvignon, are being produced in the state, with half being whites and half being reds.

In traveling around the country in his role as chairman of the Winegrape Growers of America, he sees a lot of wineries and says that Idaho is definitely in a position to capitalize on its vine-producing amenities. With so many customers visiting wineries out of curiosity or to buy wine, there is a lot of on-farm potential. The Bitners have recently capitalized on that by turning their house into a bed and breakfast overlooking the vineyard, the universal sign that a region is becoming known for its wineries.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.