Vintage Alumni

C of I winemakers prosper in fertile Snake River Valley

The Gem State is an excellent place to grow more than just potatoes, and College of Idaho alumni Dr. Ron Bitner ’68, John Danielson ’76 and Martin Fujishin ’00 know that better than most. The three businessmen have taken advantage of Idaho’s climate and rich volcanic soil to become award-winning winemakers.

“Idaho is uncharted territory for the most part,” said Danielson, founder and consulting winemaker of the Vale Wine Company in Caldwell. “We’re working diligently to do a lot of climate and soil mapping to help people in the future, but most of the people growing out there now are pioneers.”

Idaho’s winemaking industry might not even exist if not for Bitner. The former C of I football player and internationally known entomologist, first experienced winemaking in Australia while working there as a pollination consultant. He returned to his native Idaho in 1981 to establish Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell and has worked tirelessly ever since to bring Idaho wines to international audiences.

Over the course of his career, Bitner has helped establish the Snake River American Viticultural Area, served as President of the National Wine Grape Growers Association and brought in more than $100,000 in grant money to benefit Idaho winemakers. The extent of this involvement has led to Bitner being called “The Godfather of Idaho Wine,” a nickname he modestly acknowledges.

“Steering Idaho through all this is a great accomplishment,” Bitner said. “The wine industry is one of the great assets of the state.”

Pay it forward

It was Bitner who helped Fujishin get his start in the industry. The two know each other well through the C of I; Bitner’s wife, Mary, worked at the College for a number of years and Fujishin’s father, Barry, is a longtime member of the C of I development office. During a Habitat for Humanity trip to Tijuana shortly after Martin’s graduation, Bitner encouraged Fujishin to use his background in farming to work with the Koenig Winery and Distillery near Bitner Vineyards.

“At the time, I didn’t really want to work in the wine industry, but they were persistent,” Fujishin said. He worked part time with Koenig in 2003, and a few years later became a manager at Bitner Vineyards. Fujishin launched Fujishin Family Cellars in 2009, producing multiple medal-winning wines along the way. Bitner singles him out as “the one to watch” in Idaho winemaking’s future.

“He went above and beyond helping me get established,” Fujishin said of Bitner. “The industry in Idaho is so unique that in order to get your start here, it’s a pay-it-forward system in which the wineries that were in existence 30 years ago help the new generation get started.”  

The C of I Way

John Danielson is close with both Bitner and Fujishin—he grew up 10 miles away from Bitner and went to school with Barry Fujishin. When Danielson returned to the Treasure Valley in 2005, he began taking his winemaking hobby to a professional level, relishing the creativity winemaking brought him.

“Any two winemakers can take the same exact grapes and make completely different wines,” he said. “You can start with the end in mind and work your way back. There are so many styles and varieties of wine that there is something for everyone.”

All three men agree that the liberal arts education they received at The College of Idaho has contributed to their success as winemakers. Danielson, who took classes in oenology and viticulture at the University of California-Davis, acknowledged that the C of I biology and chemistry classes he took even as a business major prepared him for the challenges of winemaking.

“You have to be a little bit of an artist, a little bit of a scientist, and a little bit of a businessman to do well in winemaking,” he said. “The College provides all that and more.”

The winemaking trio also is involved in giving back to the College. Bitner, a member of the Board of Trustees, established the Taste of the Harvest scholarship with his wife in 2001. To date, the fund has provided more than $300,000 for first-generation Latino students as a way of giving back to vineyard workers. Fujishin has hired C of I graduates to work in his tasting room, noting that their critical thinking skills and all-around knowledge have been a great benefit to his winery. Danielson began working as an instructor at the C of I in 2013, teaching in the business department to help pass along his entrepreneurial knowledge.  

As Fujishin put it, the three are happy to pay it forward—both as C of I alumni, and as leaders in Idaho’s blossoming wine industry.