A Plane Boss, at best. He majored in economics, with a minor in accounting at Eastern Washington University, determined to become a Charlie Hoppes you’d trust with your money, but at that time one who wasn’t terribly concerned with your Merlot.
In college, when he’d come home to the Yakima Valley for a weekend, he’d pick up a local wine made by a California guy named Rob Griffin.
“I don’t know if he knows — but some of those wines he was making in the late ‘70s for Preston made me think about doing this. There was one called something like ‘Desert Gold,’ I think. For who I was and my palate, I thought that was awesome.”
Living in Seattle post-college, the ease of access to good restaurants with great wine lists started to stir some interest. On weekends, he and his wife would head over to her parents’ house in Pasco, where he dabbled in the production of home wine. Back on the westside, berry wine would have to do.
“I liked the whole process, and I spoke with a few people in the industry, and they said they could use any trained people they could get,” he says, at that time still a Boeing employee, but not for long.
“I quit my job. I visited Davis, I liked it — my wife was fully supportive. If I was going to do it, that was the time to do it, we hadn’t started our family yet. So, I enrolled in ’85.”
University of California-Davis, at the time, was the most storied winemaking program in the nation.
“If you can get accepted and get through it, it’s a pretty big deal,” he says.
Growing up, his parents’ dinner table was often laden with a hock of German Riesling, and in a roundabout way, German Riesling brought him back to Washington. The story of his trajectory is reminiscent of the big reveal in a detective movie, when a fringe character stumbles upon the singular obsession of the protagonist: a wall of haphazardly written sticky notes, long lens photos and piece of yarn held with thumbtacks, stringing it all together… which is to say one nearly needs appendices with the detailed history of Washington wine to make sense of it all.
Like many industries, wine sees a fair amount of changing hands as the years rattle along — but there are a few people who rise above the changing of the guards. One of them is Charles Hoppes.
He began his Washington wine career as an assistant winemaker in Mattawa to Mike Januik (now of Novelty Hill/Januik) at F.W. Langguth (the history of which is a whole different story but, suffice it to say, rife with Germans and Riesling), which was technically then Snoqualmie, until it became part of Stimson Lane which later became Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. And the original Langguth planted Weinbau Vineyard, with Sagemoor, which is now Allan Brothers Fruit but still also Sagemoor.
From Langguth/Snoqualmie, Charlie went to Waterbrook in Walla Walla, years before it was Precept, but he was not there for long. He went back to the westside to take a white winemaking job with Mike Januik again, this time at Château Ste. Michelle proper. By ’93, he became the head red winemaker for Château Ste. Michelle, and helped open their Canoe Ridge facility in the Horse Heaven Hills and overlooking the Columbia River.
He calls his time with Ste. Michelle invaluable — but after the 1998 vintage, it was time for a change.
“I think you come to a crossroads, and you’re either going to be a corporate winemaker, and you’re going to do it for 30 years and then retire,” he says. “I just never had that thought in mind. I had an entrepreneurial bug. I needed to do something on my own.”
After stepping out from the umbrella of the state’s largest brand, Charlie helped Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla get its start, before beginning his own label in 2000. Much like the logo he has become synonymous with, the work and relationships Charlie honed through his start in the industry would come back full circle in the creation of Fidélitas.
“I was able to piecemeal together enough grapes to make 400 cases for that first vintage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from Weinbau Vineyard,” he says.
Fidélitas firmly rooted on Red Mountain, Woodinville
More than 20 years later, Fidélitas is a thriving brand, with a significant wine club and two successful tasting rooms. One is on Red Mountain. The other is in a brand-new spot on the former Red Hook campus in Woodinville, a significant upgrade from its previous home just down the road in the Hollywood Schoolhouse District.
A singular moment, and wine, set this in motion — thus changing the landscape of one of Washington’s most prestigious American Viticultural Areas and its well-known premium brands.
In the late ‘80s, while still working for Langguth/Snoqualmie, Charlie had the opportunity to pour at Kiona Vineyards during the Williams family’s fun-filled Lemberger Days.
“I remember the day exactly,” Charlie says. “It was June 11th, 1989. My wife was very pregnant, and I was pouring wine, but I went downstairs with John Williams and Scott. They said I should try some Cabernet while I was there.”
That taste, a Cabernet from Kiona’s estate vineyard on Red Mountain, never left him. In it he saw a glimpse of what could be, what might be, if he could get there. “I thought, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to do this someday. This is amazing!’ ”
As for that journey back to the mountain, he says, “It took me a while.”
Since its inception, Fidélitas has narrowed much of its focus to its home — the tasting room built in 2007 on Red Mountain and the vineyards surrounding it. Charlie is the Wine Boss; but also owns his WineBoss production facility in Richland where he’s made the wine or consulted on dozens of brands in the Northwest. He’s helped many small wineries of Washington get their start, or exist at all.
His son, Will, is now the managing director of Fidélitas. Mitch Venohr was promoted to become the family’s head winemaker and oversee WineBoss. Charlie transitioned into the role as director of winemaking and vineyards.
“I’ll probably always make wine, as long as I’m alive,” Charlie says, thinking for a moment. “Maybe. Until they’re rolling me in there in a wheelchair, at least.”