RICHLAND, Wash. – Charlie Hoppes has come a long way in the past three decades – all to be back in the Yakima Valley.
Hoppes, owner of Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, grew up not far away in the Yakima Valley town of Wapato, where he worked in Concord vineyards as a high schooler in the 1970s.
After graduating from Eastern Washington University with a degree in economics, Hoppes went to work for Boeing. But the pull of wine – always present in his family’s home when he was growing up – lured him back to college. He earned a degree in viticulture and enology from the vaunted University of California-Davis and immediately returned to Washington.
We recently caught up with Hoppes at his winemaking facility in Richland. Here’s the interview:
Charlie Hoppes enters Washington wine industry
In 1988, he was hired by Mike Januik to work at Snoqualmie Winery, which then was at the old Langguth Winery facility on the remote Wahluke Slope. After a brief stint in 1990 working at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, he once again joined Januik, who had been hired as head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Hoppes became the red winemaker, working at Washington’s oldest winery from 1990 to 1998.
That time at Ste. Michelle was an education he believes was irreplaceable.
“When you’re at a place like Chateau Ste. Michelle for 10 years, you see so many things,” Hoppes told Great Northwest Wine. “You see a lot of vineyards. You get to meet a lot of people. If I had been at a small winery all that same amount of time, I wouldn’t have seen as much and experienced as much. It’s almost like you can pack a whole career in a 10-year period at a place like that.”
Hoppes was with Ste. Michelle when it decided to build a winemaking facility dedicated solely to red wines. The Canoe Ridge Estate facility is 13 miles west of Columbia Crest in the southern Horse Heaven Hills.
Leaving Ste. Michelle
In late 1998, Hoppes made the decision to leave – coincidentally, it was the same year Januik left Ste. Michelle to start his eponymous winery – and moved to Walla Walla, where he helped start up Three Rivers, a destination winery west of town. In 2000, Hoppes launched Fidelitas while continuing to work at Three Rivers through 2002.
Upon starting Fidelitas, one of Hoppes’ first calls was to legendary grape grower Paul Champoux, owner of Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. Hoppes had gotten to know Champoux through the years because he would run samples for the viticulturist at his lab on Canoe Ridge. Hoppes used that connection to make sure he secured Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Champoux upon starting up Fidelitas
Hoppes also met Dick Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyards near the Yakima Valley town of Grandview, while working at Ste. Michelle, and he quickly cultivated a relationship that lasts today.
“A lot of those relationships have lasted all this time,” he said.
Coming to Red Mountain
Hoppes has long had his eye on Red Mountain, the tiny 4,040-acre bench in the eastern Yakima Valley near the town of West Richland. He recalls his first visit in 1988, when he was just starting his career. He went to Kiona Vineyards & Winery for its Lemberger wine festival.
“I was driving up that dirt road and thinking this could really be something someday,” he said.
But through all his years at Ste. Michelle, he never had the opportunity to make wine with Red Mountain grapes. (Ste. Michelle now has a big presence on Red Mountain, thanks to Col Solare, which the company co-owns with Italy’s Antinori family.)
In 2005, he got his first taste of Red Mountain grapes, and he was hooked. In 2007, he purchased 5 acres of land from Stan Clarke, a longtime figure in the Washington wine industry who died later that year. In 2010, Hoppes bought an additional 10 acres from Clarke’s widow. He will plant grapes there next year. Boushey is Hoppes’ vineyard manager.
In addition to his own vines, Hoppes also buys grapes from such vineyards as Ciel du Cheval, Quintessence, Scootney Flats, Hightower, Red Heaven, Red Mountain Vineyard, Kiona and the Canyons (formerly Blackwood Canyon).
“I’m really happy with the direction we’re going,” he said.
Arrival in Woodinville
Around 2006, many wineries began to open wineries or second tasting rooms in Woodinville, a town northeast of Seattle where Chateau Ste. Michelle has resided since 1976. Hoppes was skeptical about the area and ultimately opened a tasting room in south Seattle instead.
After that didn’t work out, Hoppes took another look at Woodinville and decided to give it a go, especially when he found a spot right next to Purple Cafe, just a two-minute drive from Chateau Ste. Michelle. He opened the tasting room in August 2013.
“(Originally) I didn’t take Woodinville seriously,” he said. “It’s really been great for our brand. I really think we’re just seeing the start. There is going to be more and more development in Woodinville, with more support, more hotels and more restaurants. We’re going to be right in the middle of it.”
He even gets to reconnect with former co-workers from his Ste. Michelle days who stop by the tasting room after having lunch at Purple.
“I have no complaints at all,” he said.
Harvest looms for Hoppes, Fidelitas
He also is happy with his 30,000-square-foot winemaking facility in Richland, which is perhaps 15 minutes from his tasting room and vineyard on Red Mountain. The former beer distributorship is near a Fred Meyer and is not normally open to the public. This gives Hoppes and his crew a lot of elbow room to produce up to 35,000 cases of wine for Fidelitas, as well as such wineries as Hamilton Cellars, Gamache Vintners, Anelare, Market Vineyards, Frichette Winery, Telaya and Ciel du Cheval.
Right now, Hoppes and his team are preparing for the looming harvest, which is coming on fast. He said sugar is accumulating quickly in the grapes, but he must be patient and wait for flavors to properly develop.
Fortunately, the weather conditions in the Columbia Valley are just about optimal, with highs coming in around the low to mid-80s.
“These are absolutely perfect ripening conditions,” he said.