Local winery fears the biggest impact from COVID-19 is still to come

Posted at 12:35 AM, Sep 21, 2020

CALDWELL, Idaho — It's that time of year again--grape harvesting season for Idaho's wineries.

"We're just getting started with the harvest," said Bitner Vineyards owner, Ron Bitner. "They're picking some Rose grapes, which you pick at lower sugars and our reds we are going to pick in a month."

But it hasn't been an easy road to get here. When the pandemic first started, Bitner had to completely shut down his winery while trying to farm his vineyards.

"We've had to lay off some people. We started out with eight, and we just had to get down to 2 or 3 to farm all of this," said Bitner. "And everything we do is by hand, which is a lot of manual labor for us this year like we don't use any machines."

His new reality this season is hand-harvesting a 15-acre and 55-acre field with only a few workers while also producing between 1 and 2,000 cases of wine.

"And then you toss in smoke and this fire year. I planted these vineyards in '81, and this is the worst I have ever seen the smoke in all those years, 40 years," said Bitner.

Although the smoke isn't affecting the grapes yet, he said it is a concern they won't be able to harvest anything this year.

"There's a lot of wineries in California that aren't going to pick now because it has been so intense," said Bitner. "We haven't reached that point yet. We are starting harvest, and if it just rolled in and I couldn't see you, then we would start worrying about smoke taint."

He said that he feels very grateful because he has friends in California, Oregon, and Washington that have lost everything in the fires.

"They've lost everything in a matter of time, and one of the wineries had 30 plus barrels that burnt up, and those are your wines for the next five or six years," said Bitner. "Like one barrel of wine can cost you up to $15,000."

But, he fears the worst impact is yet to come.

"Our concern is getting through, you know normally we are open November, December, and part of January, and we know this year we are going to be closed December and part of January," said Bitner.

Their tasting room is too small to serve people while social distancing, so they will have to close during the colder months when guests can't sit on the patio.

"That's when we will feel the bigger impact of what's going on, so that's why we hope people come to visit us now while we're still open," said Bitner.

He remains very hopeful for a good harvest.

"The crop looks good. It's clean," said Bitner. "Growing grapes this year, it is going to be a good year for us."

COVID-19 also changed how their wine tasting room operates. To taste wine, you must be part of their wine club. Guests are encouraged to make reservations before coming, and only parties of six or less are allowed.

"We've gone from traditional wine tastings where you are tasting ten bottles of wine, now you sign up, and you do a flight of three wines, and we serve you," said Bitner.

A service that is costing them more money, but is something they wanted to move towards to keep their guests safe and to make it a more intimate experience.

"It's going from a tasting room bar to a service. It takes us more time and money to do that because we wipe down everything," said Bitner. "But it's worth it."