Fidelitas promotes Will Hoppes, Mitch Venohr as part of transition

By on March 22, 2021
Managing director Will Hoppes, left, and head winemaker Mitch Venohr, center, will lead the day-to-day operations for Fidélitas Wines and WineBoss with owner/founding winemaker Charlie Hoppes transitioning to the role of director of winemaking and vineyards. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

RICHLAND, Wash. – Charlie Hoppes, one of Washington state’s most decorated and popular winemakers, will now spend more time with fans of Fidelitas Wines and less time at his computer and in the cellar.

His new title is director of winemaking and vineyards. At the same time, Hoppes promoted his son, Will, 29, into the role of managing director of Fidélitas and named longtime right-hand man Mitch Venohr as head winemaker for Fidélitas. The tandem will also oversee the Richland vinification facility and custom-crush operation known as WineBoss.

Those moves will free up Charlie to interface more with supporters of the Fidélitas tasting rooms on Red Mountain and in Woodinville.

“For me, the biggest thing is turning over the day-to-day business operations,” Charlie said. “I like interacting with people.”

His résumé, talent, standing within the industry and affable approach create a combination that showcases the retail potential of a winemaker who doesn’t mind working the market or chatting with customers.

“I think we’re already seeing some of the benefits of me just hanging out in the tasting room,” Charlie said. “Not a lot of winemakers enjoy it, but I actually do enjoy it.”

Will playfully points out, “Yeah, we just need for you to work on your iPad POS skills, but that’s the least important part!”

Hoppes, aka “The Wine Boss,” will still monitor his family’s estate plantings and other vineyard sources — all from Red Mountain — and he will return to the crush pad when fruit begins to arrive this summer.

“I like harvest, and it’s the most important time for the wine because it sets the table,” Hoppes said. “What you do at crush largely determines what you have to live with for the rest of that wine’s life.”

Venohr’s situation won’t change dramatically because of his years working for Charlie, starting in 2010 while a winemaking student at Washington State University.

“I met him first when he was a grad student and working for Mike Moore (at Blackwood Canyon),” Charlie said with a smile. “Then he moved to Gamache and was working part-time in their tasting room and in the field when he was still a student. In 2010, when we were still making Fidélitas at Goose Ridge, Mitch worked for us during harvest as much as he could. In 2011, he came on with us permanently, so that’s 10 vintages.

“He’s seen the style evolve, and he’s been a very integral part of what we’re doing,” Charlie continued. “He’s been great — very talented with a great palate.”

Record-setting QB now calls signals at Fidélitas

The Hoppes family owns and farms 15 acres west of Sunset Road on Red Mountain near Benton City, Wash. (Kim Fetrow Photography/Courtesy of Fidélitas)

With his wife, Terri, and his brother, Loren, Charlie Hoppes launched Fidélitas after two decades of making wine for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, working with mentor-turned-friend Mike Januik and developing kinships with scores of other winemakers and growers. In 2018, Hoppes was named the honorary vintner for the Auction of Washington Wines.

The progression has been steady and natural for Will. After rewriting much of the Washington state high school football record books as a quarterback at Tri-Cities Prep, Will chose to focus on academics and earned a finance degree from the University of Portland. He put that to work for two years in the private wealth management division of U.S. Bank in Portland, but his destiny was back home.

“I just didn’t realize how good I had it,” Will says with a chuckle. “Growing up, your dad could be an astronaut and you probably wouldn’t think it was that cool because it’s your dad.”

Rather than seek a cellar job in the Napa Valley, Will applied for and landed a position in sales and marketing at Domaine Nicolas-Jay, a high-end Pinot Noir producer in the Willamette Valley.

“At the time, I still had all my friends in Portland so I looked for a job in the Willamette Valley and found a really amazing job, working with Jay Boberg and Jean-Nicolas Meo at a startup winery,” Will says. “I got to do a lot of different things, learning from this world-famous French winemaker and a guy who had built his own record label essentially. I was really the only other employee besides Tracy Kendall — their associate winemaker.”

After a year, Charlie brought Will into the fold at Fidélitas, first as the Woodinville tasting room manager before returning home after two years to become a winemaker in training.

“It was never my dream or intention for Fidélitas to grow it into something and then try to sell it,” Charlie says. “I wanted to create something that could be a multi-generational business. If we’re going to go forward, this was a logical thing for us to do.”

Will also has taken on a more-involved role with the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area Alliance, working to recruit Play Nice — a wine-focused public relations group headquartered in Portland and led by Kayt Mathers — to help promote the growing region that Fidélitas calls home.

“I worked with Kayt when I was in the Willamette Valley at Nicolas-Jay, and she did a lot of work with us,” Will said. “Play Nice is really excited to work with Red Mountain, and we’re excited to have them with us. There’s a renewed buzz among some of the stakeholders on Red Mountain to promote the AVA.”

Fidélitas production closes in on 15,000 cases

Charlie Hoppes was named the honorary vintner for the 2018 Auction of Washington Wines. (Photo by Kim Fetrow Photography/Courtesy of Fidelitas)

Hoppes, who grew up in the Yakima Valley farming community of Wapato, graduated in 1980 from Eastern Washington University with an economics degree and then learned winemaking at University of California-Davis. Upon graduation in 1988, he worked in the region and moonlighted for two years as a scoreboard operator for the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association.

Two years later, Januik hired him at Ste. Michelle. By 1993, Hoppes rose through the ranks to head up its red wine production at Canoe Ridge before venturing out on his own. He helped launch Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, Ryan Patrick in the Columbia Basin and Goose Ridge in Richland. The inaugural vintage for Fidélitas, 2000, was produced at Three Rivers.

The brand name for their winery is an enduring tribute to Terri’s father — Daniel “Fidelis” O’Neill. In fact, Charlie’s first wine — Riesling — was made in the O’Neill kitchen back in 1983. Ironically, that variety hasn’t played a part of Fidélitas’s commercial history.

Along the way, Charlie developed bonds with some of the state’s top growers, namely Paul Champoux of famous Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and the seemingly ubiquitous Dick Boushey, who oversees several sites on Red Mountain, including the Hoppes family’s 12 acres of vines near its Benton City tasting room. Once Champoux retired in 2014, Fidélitas became 100% Red Mountain fruit. The seemingly instant success of Dick and Wendy Shaw’s Quintessence Vineyard, managed by Ste. Michelle-trained Marshall Edwards, made it a key source for Fidélitas starting in 2012.

“After 2015, with water being more available on Red Mountain, that just opened up more land,” Hoppes said. “We have eight to 10 vineyard partners on Red Mountain depending upon the year, and we highlight five to six of those as single-vineyard wines.”

This year, Fidélitas plans to bottle about 14,000 cases at the WineBoss facility it continues to lease from Russ and Stacie Hamilton of Hamilton Cellars, and the 2019 vintage will feature estate fruit for as much as 15 percent of that production. There’s been an estate Cabernet Sauvignon starting with the classic 2012 vintage. In the near future, Malbec and Merlot will be standalone bottlings, and there will be a pair of clonal-selection Cabs from the 2019 vintage.

“We’re slowly rolling out those wines,” Charlie said. “We want them to be just as good as anything else in our lineup, and there are some heavy hitters in that lineup. In 2019, the vineyard became mature enough, and the quality is there. Ultimately, we want to be about 15,000 cases, and if we can get to about 2,500 cases from the estate, that would be a nice little number for us.”

Overall production out of the WineBoss facility stands at about 30,000 cases, which Venohr will continue to oversee for clients such as Anelare, Market Vineyards and Hamilton Cellars. And along the way, Team Hoppes and Venohr will bring a renewed focus to the m100 label, which is a standalone brand from Fidélitas. Those wines will carry “Columbia Valley” as the AVA on the bottle, not Red Mountain, and sell for about $25 per bottle.

“We’re going to bring m100 back as a retail brand,” Charlie said. “The retail market has shifted, and it’s yet to be seen what is going to happen with the restaurant business, but there’s definitely a need for great value wines at retail. That’s what we’re looking at for m100.”

And it will be easy for the family to remember Will’s first full-time harvest for the company because 2019 marked the 20th harvest for Fidélitas. The first wine from that historic vintage — the 2019 Optu Red — is scheduled to be released in early 2022. Charlie looks forward to bringing them to market, seeing his devoted customers and thanking them for sticking with Fidélitas during the pandemic.

“I’d have to say our relationship with our club members has been such that they’ve been more than supportive. They’ve just been great,” Charlie said. “They understand who we are. We’re a small business, and they have choices of places to buy from, but they’ve gone out of their way to support us. I can’t say enough good things about our wine club. But I have to say that we’ve worked at it. We have good relationships with those people. I can look at our list and call them up and they know who I am — and I know them.”

Growers also can expect to see Charlie a bit more going forward.

“With all of the great vineyards that we have access to, he will be the one managing those relationships,” Will said.

Father, son plan to grow Fidélitas in Seattle area

Fidelitas operates a satellite tasting room in Woodinville’s Hollywood Hills district. (Photo courtesy of Fidelitas)

There’s no sibling rivalry among Will and his three sisters. Two chose to dedicate their careers to social work. Another is a stay-at-home mother who plans to launch a garden flower business that will involve plots surrounding the Red Mountain tasting room.

“I’m more worried about the generation after me getting control of the family business,” Will quipped.

Charlie added, “We may already have a next-generation winemaker. She’s only 4-years-old, but …”

Next month, Will will be moving to Woodinville and living there full-time. No doubt his home will have two bedrooms so that his father will have a place to stay when the Seattle Mariners are in town. Charlie, one of the Washington wine industry’s most well-read sports fans, has twice traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., to witness the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions for Mariners greats Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez. As a result, Fidélitas supporters might be able to use the M’s schedule to get an idea of when special events will be staged in Woodinville.

“We do preview tastings with our wine club members twice a year so they can get in and taste everything they are going to purchase beforehand,” Charlie said. “I will always be at those preview tastings. And we keep them on separate weekends between Woodinville and Red Mountain.”

Along the way, Will and Charlie have curated a father-and-son presence on Facebook and YouTube, and they are working on growing the profile of Fidélitas in Woodinville and the Seattle-area market.

“We committed to doing the videos early on during the pandemic, but I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be,” Will chuckled.

Speaking to live audiences is something that Charlie has done for years, and Will is quickly adapting.

“A lot of the time it’s easier to be the son of a winemaker,” Will said. “People seem to really like hearing the story of growing up in the wine industry. And to be able to walk into a situation like this at my age? Well, it’s interesting to see the number of Washington wineries that are a similar age as ours and see some going to the second generation. But a lot of the others are being sold.”

Charlie leaned back in his WineBoss conference room chair, folded his arms across his chest and smiled.

“I get this question all the time when they meet Will — ‘Is that really your son?’ ” Charlie chuckled. “Will is like a foot taller than I am!”

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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