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Idaho Special - EP04 - Bitner Vineyards
Episode 2316th December 2022 • Wine Crush Podcast - OR • Wine Crush Podcast - OR
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Welcome to Wine Crush Podcast and another stop into our Idaho Road Trip! This stops lands us with Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards. As a retire bee researcher, he has travelled the world studying these amazing little insects. This led to a highly interesting conversation on the bee’s themselves, the vineyard and the wonderful wine created at Bitner Vineyards! Enjoy the episode!

Transcripts

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From the heart of the Oregon wine country, you're listening to season five of the Wine

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Crush podcast. Stories uncorked for casual wine enthusiasts around the world, featuring

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winemakers from the Willamette Valley, sponsored by Country Financial. From origin stories

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to terroir, here's your host, Heidi Moore.

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Hey everybody, welcome to Wine Crush podcast. We are on stop number four of our road trip

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to Idaho and we are with Ron Bittner of Bittner Vineyards. I love it when I get to meet somebody

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actually in the flesh in person. We've had a really great conversation even before we've

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gotten started here. So we're gonna have to kind of loop back to catch some of that gold

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because it was good. But you brought us a Tempranillo today, which is one of my favorites.

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And so thank you for doing that. Thank you for joining us and agreeing to this kind of

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almost last minute. I think I kind of almost twisted your arm a little bit going, hey,

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I'm gonna be there. You want to come? And you were so gracious to say yes and to actually

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show up. So thank you for doing that. And you've not listened to the show and you didn't

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really know what we were doing. So you're a really good sport. So thank you so very

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much. But this is really all about you and bringing the Idaho wine industry to the rest

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of the world and people who are interested in trying something different and new. And

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part of that is learning what your backstory is. And we were just talking about it, but

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your backstory was not wine. You have a much greater interest that wine is just part of.

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So let's kind of start where you started kind of, you know, getting into the wine journey

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and then we can circle back to the passion.

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Well, the wine journey, I guess it started, might have been across the street at the College

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of Idaho. I'm a local boy and I had a degree in biology there in 1968. I graduated and

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wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I got a research grant to study native bees

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at Purdue University of Indiana. And I thought Indiana was back east. I'd never been out

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of Idaho, but my wife and oldest daughter and I, she was two at the time, headed off

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to Indiana. I love Purdue. I learned a lot about native bees. Most people don't realize

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there's 4,000 kinds of bees in the United States and one honeybee. Everything else is

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primarily a native bee, not all of them.

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And everybody just, when you say bee, it always goes directly to the honeybee or the bumblebee.

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Right. And with a honeybee, they all want to know, well, what do you do with all the

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honey? Well, the other bees don't collect honey. They're not social. There's no queens.

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But pollen is the source of protein for all the eggs they lay. And then the honey, the

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nectar that they just take out of a flower, they just use that to moisten the pollen and

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give some energy. So I started at Purdue. I love Purdue, but I miss my mountains because

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I grew up in the mountains about 80 miles north of here and a little town of 100 people,

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you know, 14 kids in my class. So I came to see if I played some football here, went off

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to Purdue, missed the mountains and was offered another research grant at the USDA bee lab

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in Logan, Utah, in Logan, Utah. And I went there to study the alfalfa leaf cutting bee.

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So I did my Ph.D. work on this little bee that was just fairly new in the sixties, didn't

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know a lot about it. So I did a lot of research on it and did my Ph.D. on it. And that little

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bee is the reason Idaho is such a great producer of alfalfa seed in the world, because it's

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not like a honeybee. That's one of the flowers that primarily pollinates is alfalfa seed.

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And because of the little bee and its ability to rapidly pollinate seed, a thousand pounds

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of seed in three weeks, in 1995, I was invited by CSIRO Australia to come down here and introduce

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that bee to Australia. And at first I was a little nervous about introducing a bug into

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Australia because of all of the issues they've had. But because this little leaf cutter bee

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can pollinate so rapidly, it helps conserve water in Australia. And that's always the

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thing you got to honeybees take three months to pollinate, make seed. This little bee is

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done in three weeks. And so I wrote the protocols at CSIRO and work with the farmers and researchers

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there and finished that project up in 2006. While I was there, I fell in love with Australia

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and their wines. I wasn't really a wine person, but the Aussies are such fun people and they

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were always wanting to have a drop of Shiraz. And so I came back, I started planning Shiraz.

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Everybody said, what is that? It's Syrah, but doing some blends with my Petit Verdot

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and Merlot. And the Syrah has just been a dynamic grape for us. And I can talk about

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that a little bit more when we get into the wines. But anyway, I've had a career of working

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with non honeybees that farmers can buy and manage the bumblebees. I've worked with bumblebees,

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blue orchard bees, alkali bees. There's only four or five species that are commercially

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available that a farmer can get for his crop. So I've been doing that for 40 years with

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bees and they've taken me all over the world, all over the Middle East, India. So I appreciate

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that little bee. It's on our labels. It's on everything. We actually have some watercolors

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of bees on our labels that represent my PhD work, my master's work, bees I've worked with

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in the world. So bees have been part of my life. I really, currently I'm on the board

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of directors at a pollinator partnership out of San Francisco. It's the largest 501c3 in

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the world promoting, educating people about bees. So that's been a fun project for me.

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So bees, they're there. They're part of my life, always have been. They paid for a lot

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of my wanting to try different things and wine growing. But when I finished up my PhD

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in 1974 out of Utah State, I missed Idaho. So we came home and found a little property

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on the hill that was overlooking the Snake River and Sanchapelle was just getting ready

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to build their winery. And the first winemaker was Bill Broach building a house below us.

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And he came up one day and he was building his house. I sit above him and you'll see

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where when you visit there later today, it's pretty steep. And I knew it was going to be

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hard to farm because there wasn't anything there in 1980, 81, but sagebrush. But bought

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the property for the view of the Snake River Valley. Bill Broach was the first winemaker

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for Sanchapelle. He came up and we're visiting and I said, you know, I don't know what I'm

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going to do with the sagebrush and it's too steep to farm. And he said, Bittner, you're

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sitting on a world-class site for Chardonnay. And I said, well, Bill, that's cool, but what's

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Chardonnay because I had no idea about wines. And he explained to me the slope, south-facing

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slope, Snake River below us there, climate, soils, all of that. And so we started planning,

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Amy, she was five. We started planning that, that's my daughter, that in 1981, the little

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block of Chardonnay below our house. And we have about four acres there now. So yeah,

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I've got my vineyards or some of the older ones here at 40 plus acres on the whites.

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My reds are 20, 25 years old. So that's what started me. Didn't know what I was doing,

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but I always loved to farm when I was a kid. And so that was where I got started while

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I was working in Australia, 2000. Well, this was in 98 when I was working there. I got

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a phone call from a young man and introduced himself as Greg Koenig and told me he was

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gonna have a winery here in Idaho. And I said, well, that's cool, Greg. And he said, I'd

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like to buy some grapes from you. And I said, well, that's cool too. But I said, where is

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your place? And he said, well, it's gonna be right below yours. I haven't built it yet.

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It's just another little old farm shed. And so 1997, took some Cabernet down there to

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Greg and you know, back then as a grower, he was gonna to pay me by the ton or whatever.

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It was a small block, but we got down there and he started sorting through the grapes

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and he started throwing some of my grapes on the ground. And I said, wait a minute,

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Greg, how's this work when you're paying me by the ton? And he said, I want to make the

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best Cabernet I can make. And he said, this is a little bit of mildew, not enough color.

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I said, here's the deal, Greg. I want you to make the best Cabernet, but I want you

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to make some Cabernet for me. And so that's when our relationship with Greg Koenig, who's

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really the wine master who created the name for Idaho, in my opinion, because of his reds

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and his whites, he's done beautiful whites for us. So that was our start with Greg. And

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he called me later that, I don't know, it was probably 98. He'd entered the 97 Cabernet

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in a competition in New York. And he said, Ron, I said, what? And he said, we just got

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a gold medal. Is that good? Beats me. I think it probably is. And then the 97 was invited

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to the Jeffersonian Institute Competition for Excellence in Agriculture that year. And

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it won a big award there. And so starting in 97, Cabernet was a great, great force.

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We actually just on that same block got a gold in Denver with our reserve because we

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only have an acre and a half of it. So we don't do a lot. My production on this 14 acres

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that I have is typically 20 tons, including my neighbors. But it's all local right there.

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But we made that into 1,500 case production. And that's where we've stuck all these years.

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So it started with Greg. Then one of his helpers were the three amicos, Martin's magician.

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My wife worked at the College of Idaho for Martin's dad. And we just got to be friends

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with Martin. He's a super kid. And he and Greg and I, over the years, we'd hold dinners

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together and do things. And we were known as the three amigos. So it's really been a

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fun ride not having a background with wines of helping Idaho come ahead.

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It seems to be an industry that's getting a little bit of attention now. It's small

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still. And I love it because it's small. And there is this really great camaraderie with

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so many of you that are, it's nice seeing that rising tide lift all ships adage. And

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it still feels like you have that here.

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We do. I don't know that much about grapes or didn't. I've learned to realize that our

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wines that we make do really well in competitions. I never thought about that we would compete

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with other people. I think it was seven years ago. For two years, I was chair of the Wine

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Growers of America. And again, I don't know why I was chair, but I was there. Some of

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the guys from Sonoma and Nampa Valley took my wife and I out to dinner that night. And

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we all agreed to bring a cabernet along. And I said, fine. And I was still nervous about

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it. But we sat down and these four guys over there from Northern California, they had 14,000

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acres of wine grapes. These were the big guys. But nice because they were farmers, you know,

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and I always get along well with farmers. And so we'd all brought and they said, how

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many acres do you have? And I said, 14 acres, not 14. I said, 14. They said, 1000. I said,

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no, 14 acres. I said, that's fine, you know. And so we had our meal at night and we were,

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everybody was drinking the cabs they'd brought. And later that evening, Mary and I were sitting

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there, but one of them said, turn the light up. And they said, Oh my God, this is Bittner's.

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And I thought, Oh my gosh, what's wrong? They looked at me and said, Bittner. And I said,

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what? And they said, you can play with us. That's a huge compliment. And it is from farmers

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from Nampa Valley and Sonoma. And some of them are still friends, a couple of them are

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even wine club members still. But it gave me the confidence that, you know, as a grower

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and when they said I can play with them, that from there on, it doesn't, I'm not intimidated

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by anybody talking about an Idaho wine. Part of that committee was Jerry Lohr, J. Lohr.

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Going out to dinner one night. And so I asked him for his advice and he said, Ron, in the

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wine world, you have to be really, really little or really, really big like me. And

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so that's been my philosophy the whole life. He said, make good wine and keep it fun and

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stay small or you got to start moving up the food chain. But in between it's a real hard

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world because of all the costs involved. And even though it's hard at the smaller level,

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he said, but, you know, just what it costs to put on, then you have to get really big

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to recover anything. So I felt very fortunate to have people like that mentor me along the

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way. I have a friend from the College of Ottawa. We were roommates. He invited me to Port of

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R three years ago and he said, you know, my California neighbors got something to do with

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red drapes in California. So he invited him over. He came over that night. I brought my

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cab and, well, his friend was Andrew Beckstauffer of Northern California, has the most well-known

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oldest Cabernet blocks in California. You're kind of running with the big boys. I was and

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not knowing it, not intimidated by it, but, you know, he's a nice Cabernet, Ron. And his

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wife brought a bottle of Tor, which is a $250 bottle. Beckstauffer's vineyards, he doesn't

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have a winery, but he gets paid based on what the winemakers in California, he takes $1,000

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times $250, $25,000 a ton for them to even buy. Here it's, you know, $1,500, $2,000.

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And so I got to know him. He invited me down there. I still sit on the UC Davis Viticulture

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Foundation just reviewing papers with viticulture each year. I still, I guess I'm not retired

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at all, but I enjoy reading papers and viticulture and entomology. And I attribute that to getting

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a good education here at the College of Idaho, going to great schools. And, you know, I enjoyed

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research. I was with the University of Idaho as an extension specialist. And I was 76 two

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weeks ago and I'm getting old enough. I don't, I argue more than I used to with people, but

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it's been fun. And it's especially been fun coming from Idaho and watching these other

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wineries. You've got some of the younger wine growers here and that are going to be talking

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in the next two days. And, you know, they're going home, really want to grow. Amy and I

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have been together, my daughter for so long, we look at it. And when people say, well,

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you need more advertising, you need to grow. And I'm like, well, my wines take anywhere

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from the time I plant them to when you have a glass, four to six years, we take a lot

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of time to make these wines. And so I'm not, I'm not adding any more acres. We don't need

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to. We're in a good spot. And our wine club is, has been really good to us. A lot of people

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have moved into the Boise Valley. It's really grown. And I know I don't say anything about,

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oh, they're from California because my wife was a secretary on a ranch from California

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that I met 25 years ago. But some come with tremendous pallets and they also come with

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like, wow, $50. That's nothing for a wine like this. And so we get told that over and

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over allowing us to stay small and not just because they're from California, because we

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make wines and we have friends with people who are school teachers that can't afford

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some of our wines because our, our reds are all in that $35 to $50 range, but we make

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exceptions. And because Amy grew up here and she's, you know, there's still people who

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want to come out and just enjoy things. So we've got special deals for the locals that

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don't choke when they talk.

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Special deals for special people.

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For special people. And that's what I've enjoyed about Amy. She's really a caring person and

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she's doing other things. She's working right now to become a work in the foster care system

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because what we've decided is we were three days a week. We're open Friday, Saturday,

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Monday, Tuesday, we do some business, but then the rest of the time she needs to have

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another life. And she's chosen a life now to learn about working with the state to interview

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people who are bringing in foster kids. And I admire that in her. So we're trying to make

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this a family business where we're all not stressed out and making good wine and moving

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forward. And so enjoying yourself and your time together, which is so big.

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It is.

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Yeah. Life is short. So, you know, spending time with family and the ones that you love

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and doing things that are prolific and good for the community and good for others is such

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a big thing.

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It is. And that's always been our philosophy. I lost a brother to cancer three years ago

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and he's younger than me, but it just shook me to my core that life is too short and you

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don't take anything for granted. So I have a beautiful wife and Amy and ten grandkids

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and we have ports at Everbarrel, a port we have starting clear back 15 years ago has

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got one of our grandkids name on it as they come along. And so our latest release, we

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harvested 2011 and we just bottled it last year. I mean, it's almost 10 years. When I

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was in Australia, I fell in love with ports and especially the aging process with ports.

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So that port just got a gold medal in Denver. So we make nice ports. We have fun with our

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friends. My wife is responsible for several of the labels. Our Merlot, we do a limited

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release of Menopause Merlot. And it is totally sought after. And it's almost a cult wine

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out here. And we have an artist, Jill Neal from Bend, Oregon, who does these labels for

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us. And so we have fun with labels like that. My wife is Hispanic. We do Tres Mujeres, the

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three women, because she has two sisters. Her mother had two sisters. Her grandmother

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had two sisters. And it's a late ripening harvest for Cabernet because a lot of this

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valley, they want to drink Cabernet, but they can't handle a big cab like we make. So we've

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made some for the local population, a lot of Hispanics here that love Tres Mujeres.

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Mi Tierra is a bottle of wine that we spend more money on the barrels. And three years

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in the barrels, take our three favorite selections. And it's a limited production. We've been

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doing this in 2010. Every three years, we do a release, but it's 66 cases. And the current

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price of that, when Amy said this is going to go for $100, I'm like, we can't do that.

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But we don't have any problem selling it because there are people who want a wine like that.

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And it's gotten twice now, it's gotten 90 points with suckling out of the Wine Spectator.

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So we know we're doing OK. People, when you go into a competition and they don't know

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they're from Idaho, it's like, wow, Idaho.

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You're surprising the population.

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Well, this year, let's see, we started out with the San Francisco Chronicle. We like

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that one, but it's a big competition. We did a gold on this Tempranil we're having here

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today. Silver on the Petit Perdou blend, one of my favorite blends from Australia. And

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our dry Riesling that I learned to love because the Aussies do it in a real dry style. And

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from there, went to the Sunset Magazine International Competition. Our Syrah, 97 points, double

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gold.

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There's one of the highest ranked Syrahs there. By surprise, one of the judges said, wow,

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this is like strapping wild horses. He said, hang on. I'd never heard that description

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before. And Amy laughed because she always had little horses when we were growing up.

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So I guess what goes around comes around because she said, yeah, strapping wild horses. Then

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we just got our medals from Denver last week. And it's not just Bittner Vineyards. I mean,

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there's some great wines coming out of this valley. And so it's fun to promote Idaho.

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That's what we're doing right now.

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It is. And Idaho is newer on the radar for a lot of people because people don't think

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past Walla Walla. They don't think past Tri-Cities, you know, or, you know, even potatoes. Yeah,

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for sure. Yeah. Idaho potatoes. And so it's really fascinating for me to read the history.

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So I read a lot of the history of Idaho and the planting of the grapes way back in the

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1800s. And it sounded like maybe some of them were pulled out during prohibition. Yeah.

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And so now it's kind of this resurgence of not just Riesling, but several other varietals

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that are obviously doing great things in the world of wine. And it's just going to take

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time, you know, for it to, I don't know, catch on, word to spread, people to discover what

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amazing things are coming out over here. Because I think when I first kind of dipped into the

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Idaho scene a couple of years ago, there was only 60 wineries in the entire state. And

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when I started, there was four of us. So you're, you know, obviously one of the, the OGs, you're

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like the pioneer. You know, it's not exploding like Washington and Oregon, but, and we never

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will because our grapes have to be planted on these hillsides and they're hard to farm.

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And so we're not going to do big, expansive areas, but we can make really nice wines on

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less, less acres. Yeah. It's yeah. And I don't even know if it's so much that, and I know

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Oregon took quite a while to kind of get, you know, going as well. And you almost have

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to have that ramping momentum, but it's also nice kind of being this hidden gem to where

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you can stay small and you can, you know, kind of still surprise people with the great

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wines that are coming out of here. Well, and the Pacific Northwest, when I was an extension

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specialist with the University of Idaho, I mean, we worked with the guys from Oregon

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and Washington. It was so cooperative and, and the wine industry has been that way too.

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You know, going to Washington, Jerry Buchwalders, he helped me plant my vineyard because he

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was coming down there doing things. I got to know the guys in Washington just from the

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meetings and they were always very helpful to us. And Andy Perdue and Eric Daegerman,

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you know, they're Washington wine writers, but they've just devoted a lot of time and

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energy in promoting Idaho for us. Same way over in Oregon, you know, Greg Jones, we were

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talking about earlier, worked with us to do our very first AVA and Greg and I've been,

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you know, that was 15 years ago now, but you know, we've been friends ever since. So it's

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been a very cooperative thing to watch the whole Northwest grow. And, you know, we refer

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to ourselves as the Walla Walla wannabes because they've just exploded. But we're still in

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a good position because, you know, when we enter these Northwest competitions and they're

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judged without anybody knowing them, pop pop pop are right there with the rest of those

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guys and we just don't have as many wineries and we never will, but we can still make really

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nice wines down here. It's always nice when you're given that glory of, you know, those

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that are considered to be some of the greats and you're sitting right there at the same

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table with them, whether it's Napa or Oregon or, you know, wherever else for that matter.

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I mean, Australia has their own thing. New Zealand has its own thing obviously. And that's

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the beauty of wine is that it speaks to so many different genres and palettes and interests

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for that matter. I mean, it's, you could be, I don't know, you can go on and on and on

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and on and on with wine. And I think that's what's made it so magical.

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And I never thought that I would look at wine that way, but it's, it is something that people

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get together and discuss things. And it's, it's allowed me to have my career initially

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with bees. And then I got into the vineyards and wine and I'm an entomologist and we were

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the first live certified vineyard in Idaho. And there's only two of us still, but it's

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live certifications is out of Salem. It's a third party certification that you don't

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use a lot of chemicals and I don't need to, I have background in beneficial insects. And

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so I've been live certified for eight years, no Roundup on our place. You know, everything

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we do is by hand, even there's hardly any machinery on the place. If it is, it's a little

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four wheeler that we use. I've still been able to make some really nice wines with fewer

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than a couple of sprays a year. If we do need to do a mildew spray, but my workers and I,

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especially Amy and I, my wife's Hispanic, but our workers are just, they don't get enough

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praise, you know, they're out there six in the morning because it's already a hundred

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by, you know, and it's just, and we love our workers. Four of them I've worked with us

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for 12 years, two families, they are family to us. And my wife and I started a scholarship

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at the college of auto for Hispanic kids about 10 years ago. And we've helped put four kids,

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you know, Hispanic kids wouldn't have had that opportunity to go through a college like

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the college of Idaho. And, you know, there are doctors now and you know, it's just, it's

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fun. And being able to do those kinds of things, being able to have my vineyard certified live.

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Last year we got the salmon safe award. I think there've been 10 of them in the Northwest.

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We got one of them. And when they called me to tell me that there's no salmon around here.

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And they said, no, but you're, you overlooked the snake river and that's part of saving

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salmon when it ends up to the ocean. And so I've gotten awards like that, that just come

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out of nowhere, but it's, it's what we do. We take care of the land and take care of

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our people, all of them, including our workers. Cause we always tell people you wouldn't have

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this first glass of wine without these people here helping you. We do dinners and we always

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invite our workers to fancy dinners and they dress up and come. So it's just fun. It's

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fun. It's very fun. Well, let's kind of just wrap this up because people are going to be

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very interested to come see you now. And I know you have a lot of your wines dedicated

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to wine clubs. So this is your motivation to join a wine club in Idaho. Yeah. And we

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have several people from Oregon and Washington, but it's, we're limited and we're where we

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want to be, but go to our website, make a reservation, come sit down and have dinner

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with us sometime or lunch or whatever. And we'll, we'll talk about you joining. So, and

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you are in the sunny slopes, a Caldwell area, correct? So what's the, is it bitnervineyards.com

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is at the website and then you're also on social media. So I'm with Facebook, we do

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some and my daughter does that. I haven't figured it out yet. We try and do some things.

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That's why you have the younger, the kids do it. Cause even I struggle with it a little

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bit. I'm learning slowly but surely I'm learning, but yeah, go on, check out the labels. I had

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noticed the B labels, which are beautiful. The watercolor ones and was going to mention

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that, but you beat me to it. And I did not see the menopause wine. So there's a whole

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series of those are awesome too. Yeah. So I'm going to have to seek that out and, and

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find those. And you can buy our wines online too. We're not in every state, but if you

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go to Bitner Vineyards, there's a little shopping cart there. And I think menopause Merlot

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is one that we have out there and there's four or five we'll put out for that. And we're

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in, you know, we allocate a couple hundred cases into the Boise market is for some of

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the restaurants and things, but mostly just show up at our place or order some online

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and you'll have a good time. Yeah. Which is even better. I love showing up on, on place

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and doing that. Well, Ron, thank you so very much. Thanks for bringing this Tempranillo.

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This was absolutely fabulous. Has this really beautiful finish on it and it's really a nice

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wine to probably for anything. It's not even just a dinner wine. I think you could probably

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just drink this just in the evening and enjoy just a really beautifully elegant glass of

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wine. Yeah. And the label on the front says Erlechi. Why does it say Erlechi? Mary and

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I traveled to Spain several years ago with Basque friends and we stayed in a little B&B

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and I asked the lady above that, what's that word above our bedroom door? And she said,

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Erlechi will ask Basque for the bee house. Oh, how serendipitous. And so we named this

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bottle after her. She's since passed away, but she took me around where the Romans kept

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bees and everything else in Spain there. And so that's what Erlechi is. And so it's a fun

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wine. Yeah. Well, that is an amazing way to just say goodbye and end the episode with

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just another piece of information that I didn't have before we started. Okay. Well, thank

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you very much for taking the time with us down here. Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you

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for agreeing to be part of my crazy little project. And we're going to buzz up to the

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house here in just a little while and see the views. Yeah, enjoy it. You know, we're

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probably off here right now, but the other night, one of our barn owls, we keep barn

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owl boxes there. And one of the young ones was out in the yard, just hopping around about

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this time of day. I don't know if he'll be out there right now, but, uh, I sure hope

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so. Cause I love barn owls. I did too. Yeah. And, uh, he's just learning to fly and he's

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still big, but he was hopping around the yard and everybody's like, wow, look at that. He's

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like beside the deck. That's awesome. Yeah. Well, I hope he's out there cause we will

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definitely get some video and some footage of, of the hop around. My, my grandpa always

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had barn owls in his big barn. So I always had a love for owls and barn owls. So anyhow.

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Well, thank you so very much. It was so great to actually like meet you, meet you in person

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and next time we'll meet Amy and Mary hopefully too. And I want to say that we went with you

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because for the insurance reason, because I belong to Wine America. I was on a board

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there for awhile, but we've always been involved with these big insurances out of California

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and every time they think we're too small and Martin introduced me to you and I'm so

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glad that you're going to be doing the coverage for us here in our little winery. So thank

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you. We were very excited. I get excited with every new client and it's, it's for me, it's

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extra special when somebody has been referred to me and, and honestly, I mean like this

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podcast for me is such a educational piece cause I learned something new every person

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I talk to. And even if I talk to you now, I'm going to learn something new from you

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next time I come out and hang out. I don't sit still very well. I don't either. So this

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is about as good as I do for about a half hour and I'm a fidgeter. So I actually did

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quite well. I'm kind of feel like I'm seat belted in this chair. So, but no, I'll, uh,

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we'll be back out in hopefully October ish. Um, Mary says I can stomp through her grapes

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with her when they do their harvest. You know, they're fun kids too. So we're all, we just,