"Fidelitas Wines Rising
Cream of the Crop
and the Top"
New Releases Showcase the Patience and Finesse of Winemaker
Charlie Hoppes has something that can't be taught in the wine industry-a gut instinct that nudges him when grapes are ready to pick, alerts him when he reaches the "ah-ha" point of blending wines and intuitively informs him what a wine will taste like a year or two down the road in the bottle.
at right, Charlie Hoppes
That instinct is distinguishing the Benton City, WA winemaker among his peers, and garnering accolades for his latest releases, the second vintage of Fidelitas wines. In a crowded field of new wineries and new releases, Fidelitas wines are quickly rising to the top of the barrel.
Last spring, Hoppes (pronounced hop-pas) only released one wine under his Fidelitas label-a gorgeous 2000 Meritage. This fall, Hoppes is releasing a 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2002 Columbia Valley Merlot, a 2002 Columbia Valley Syrah, a 2003 Yakima Valley Chardonnay, a white blend called Tranquility, a 2003 Columbia Valley Semillon, his 2001 Columbia Valley Meritage and a 2002 Columbia Valley red table wine.
If making his own wines wasn't enough, Hoppes is also a hired consultant or winemaker for a handful of wineries in Washington State. And even if he isn't officially a consultant for a particular winery, family and friends say he receives phone calls daily from winemakers and winery owners who have questions about wine production, barrel selection, fermentation-you name it.
"He is such a nice guy that he'll usually try to help," said his longtime friend Victor Cruz, owner of Canon del Sol Winery. "He is very dedicated, so if someone calls asking for his advice, he will generally give it. That makes him an unpaid consultant for many more wineries."
Hoppes is the winemaker or consulting winemaker for Canyon del Sol and Goose Ridge wineries. He has been the winemaker/consulting winemaker for Zefina, Ryan Patrick Winery, Three Rivers, Alder Ridge, Six Prong, Saint Laurent and Gamache Vintners among others.
But before he struck out on his own, Hoppes spent most of his winemaking experience with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, formerly Stimson-Lane-first at Snoqualmie under Mike Januik, then Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery.
For the next 10 years, Hoppes fine-tuned his instincts, working at the red wine facility of Chateau Ste. Michelle at Canoe Ridge Vineyard near Patterson, WA. Although appreciative of his experience working for the largest winery in the state, Hoppes wanted to break out on his own and put everything he knew into his own wines.
The Experience Paid Off
Known for his patience, both in the vineyard and the winery, 2004 is turning out to be a touchstone year for the affable winemaker who looks less like a winemaker rock star and more like the neighborhood dad who transports kids to and from soccer games and lends a hand when someone needs help digging a fence post. Hoppes is slightly uncomfortable under the wine industry spotlight, but is so at ease with people that he accepts his newly acquired tier one status in wine business, knowing what is good for him is likely good for the wine industry in general.
"All the attention and publicity has opened doors-when I call a distributor in California now, they seem to know who I am," Hoppes says somewhat sheepishly. "Frankly, if it helps me sell my wine and get the wine distributed, I think it's fine.
"My family will quickly remind me of my priorities and keep me humble," he laughed.
Goose Ridge Wines Molly Stutzman is a third generation Eastern Washington farmer and one of the partners in Goose Ridge Winery. Her family farm sells grapes to Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estate wineries and the last few years, selected Hoppes to make their own family wines. Even with years of farming crops, Stutzman says Hoppes taught her family how to farm grapes.
"We have one of the largest farms, with 1,300 acres, but Charlie came in and had a lot of ideas about reducing crop loads, de-leafing and other special projects that we were eager to adopt," said Stutzman. "His ability to blend different blocks of fruit in a bottle is where Charlie shines. He is one of the most approachable winemakers with an uncanny ability to pull the fruit at the right time, and select the right blends for the bottle."
The Current Releases
If a recent tasting of two of Fidelitas wines from the 2002 vintage are an indication, Hoppes is guaranteed a banner year. He credits his contracted vineyards for producing the type of crops that give him a head start in wine production. He nurtures the vines alongside the growers that include Champoux, Charbonneau, Conner Lee, Gamache and Goose Ridge, Milbrandt, Sundance, Wahluke, Klipsun, Elerding, Dwelley and Windrow vineyards, among others.
"Great wines begin in the vineyards," Hoppes said. "That's the best beginning a winemaker can have. After that, it is a combination of being patient and letting the fruit hang as long as you can-and knowing when to pick. Lots of people let it hang too long. There is a balance and a gut feeling of knowing, after tasting, when you've got it right."
Fidelitas Cabernet Sauvignon "Champoux" 02 $57 Very limited top of the line Cab from Charlie Hoppes, exquisite Cab that equals or exceeds any other 2002 wine from this vineyard, and in our opinion, ranks up there with the best of the vintage for Washington State. If a recent tasting of two of Fidelitas wines from the 2002 vintage are an indication, Hoppes is guaranteed a banner year. He credits his contracted vineyards for producing the type of crops that give him a head start in wine production. He nurtures the vines alongside the growers that include Champoux, Charbonneau, Conner Lee, Gamache and Goose Ridge, Milbrandt, Sundance, Wahluke, Klipsun, Elerding, Dwelley and Windrow vineyards, among others.
Hoppes says the first seven to 10 days of fermentation for his wines are critical and probably makes the biggest difference in the wines he produces.
"I don't know if everyone is as patient as they should be at this stage in wine production," he said when asked what differentiates his wines from others produced out of the same vineyards. "You just have to taste and know where the wine will ultimately be, while it is fermenting. This stage is probably the key for wine production-more so than most people realize."
The Fidelitas 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, with fruit from the Walla Walla Valley, features a layer of earthiness, sweet vanilla and cedar in the nose, but expands to huge, ripe plum, cherry, leather and black currant in the mouth-all beautifully integrated in the glass. This is a wine that will stand tall with Washington's premiere wines from Leonetti and Quilceda Creek. (It would be interesting to do a blind tasting with Leonetti and Quilceda Creek).
Four vineyards from Walla Walla contributed to the wine-Windrow Vineyard (40 percent), Dwelley Vineyard (27 percent), La Tour Vineyard (27 percent) and Vanessa's Vineyard (6 percent). Hoppes said the fruit was hand picked and sorted in the vineyard.
The fruit was destemmed and crushed directly to the fermentation tanks where the wine was either punched down three times daily or pumped over twice daily. The wine was gently pressed off and went immediately to barrels. Once fermentation was complete in barrel, all wines were then put through malolactic fermentation in barrel. W
hile aging in oak barrels (50 percent New French and American Oak), the wines were racked every four months to naturally clarify the wines. The wine includes about 6 percent Merlot.
"The real key is putting those vineyard fruit blends together," said Hoppes. "I don't wait for dryness, then immediately go to the barrel. Some of the fermentation is finished in the barrel." The backbone of this wine, says Hoppes, comes from the Windrow Vineyard, which was part of the original site of the Seven Hills Vineyard-some of the oldest vines in the Walla Walla region. The other two vineyards are fairly young, contributing the fruity youthfulness of the wine and a blend of fruit from several elevations in the region.
The Fidelitas 2002 Merlot is another heart-stopper. With ripe, intense chocolate, black cherry and vanilla flavors, this is a wine for cellaring to showcase how great Washington Merlot is, and can be, and it is 100 percent Merlot-easily one of the best Merlots in the country. It has the finesse now, but with a little time, it will have additional greatness in the bottle. Hoppes says the key to the Merlot comes from Vanessa's Vineyard-the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley.
Charlie Has "Something Special"
Victor Cruz, owner of Canon del Sol Winery, says Hoppes has a few tricks up his sleeve that will make it hard for other winemakers to copy. "He is a work of art to watch," said Cruz. "To look at him, you wouldn't guess what he does for a living. But when you watch him in the vineyard and in the winery, you know you are watching something special."
Charlie's brother Loren, who recently took over the reins of marketing and sales for Fidelitas, said Charlie was the third in line of five children, but was the one kid in the family who was willing to take more chances than any of the other kids.
"He knew something, and was the first of us to go out and experience culture and food and so on," said Loren Hoppes. "He understood great food, smells, textures and other things at an early age."
With more wines in barrel, Hoppes is one of the best Northwest winemakers on the radar screen, and worthy to join the ranks of the premiere wine tiers in the country.
Here's an older article written when Charlie first started Fidelitas, back in 2003:
"Fidelitas: True to the Terroir
of the Columbia Valley"
"Winemaker Charlie Hoppes Releases Own Label"
By Christina Kelly Avalon Editor/Writer
5/12/03 Charlie Hoppes released the first wines under his own label this month, and is counting on faith, loyalty and a family name to carry his vintage.
Fidelitas is the Latin word for fidelis-meaning faithful, loyal and true. It also happens to be a version of his wife's family name-Fidelas. The name has been in Terry Hoppes family for six generations.
Hoppes (pronounced hop-pas) uses the name as a mission statement. He intends to be faithful to producing Bordeaux-style blends, true to traditional winemaking and loyal to the terroir of the Columbia Valley.
"That says it all for me," Hoppes said. "It says so much, and it is still a family name. "
With new wineries popping up in Washington State every week, Hoppes said will focus on Bordeaux varieties and keep the number of varietals small. His first release is a 2000 Meritage, a blend of 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 38 percent Merlot. Production was limited to 375 cases.
Plans include increasing in size to about 5,000 cases within the next two to three years. Hoppes says he will offer a 2001 Meritage and 2001 Syrah this fall. Next year, he will add a Cabernet Sauvignon from Champoux Vineyards and a Walla Walla Cab.
"At some point, I might make a Bordeaux white blend with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon," he said. "However, I don't want to go off in too many directions. We really want to stay focused and produce the best Bordeaux blends we can."
Hoppes began his adult career as a test engineer for Boeing in Seattle. But he wanted more creative work, and began exploring winemaking after making wine in the basement of his in-laws house in Pasco.
In 1984, Hoppes applied to the University of California at Davis. He quit Boeing in 1985 and began life as a full-time student in Northern California. After three years, he had a degree in viticulture and enology. His wife Terry supported him while he studied and Hoppes worked on campus to bring in a little money.
Mike Januik hired Hoppes in 1988 while he was making wines for Snoqualmie Winery. Stimson-Lane purchased the winery a few years later and Januik brought Hoppes with him to Chateau Ste Michelle.
In 1993, Stimson-Lane opened its red wine facility at Canoe Ridge near Patterson, WA, not far from Columbia Crest Winery in Eastern Washington. Hoppes moved his growing family (by then he had two girls) to the area.
Although Hoppes said he was happy with his work, and the learning opportunities, the idea of working in a large company was still unappealing and he longed to work for a small label. His goal was produced wines under his own label.
"Anyway you looked at it, it was corporate winemaking and I wasn't enjoying it anymore," Hoppes said. "I also wasn't THE winemaker-just one of many."
A new Walla Walla winery, Three Rivers, offered Hoppes the chance to start from the ground up and produce their wines. Hoppes jumped at the chance, and made three vintages for Three Rivers-1999, 2000 and 2001.
By this time, Hoppes and Terry had four children who were growing like weeds and becoming active in school events. The lure to work independently was pulling strong, and he made the leap last year.
"One of the main reasons I did this was for my kids," Hoppes said. "I wanted to be more involved in their lives. With my own label, I call the shots and can work around their schedules. If there is a school baseball game or a marketing event in Seattle, the baseball game has top priority."
His children also help with the winery and Hoppes thinks one or two of them might enter the profession some day. Emily, the oldest, is 16, followed by Alison, 13, William, 11 and Mary, age 7.
In addition to his own winery, Hoppes also hires out as a consultant to other winemakers, including Ryan Patrick, Goose Ridge Winery and Zefina.
"As we continue to grow, I will not be consulting for other wineries," Hoppes said.
Mike Januik, who left Chateau Ste. Michelle to create his own winery, was the first to hire Hoppes in the wine industry. He said his friend is a very good winemaker.
"I taught him everything he knows," Januik said laughing. "He is one of the very few people I make a point to talk with frequently. I think he is a great winemaker, and a great family man. He wanted his own label for the same reasons I did-to spend more time with the family."
Fidelitas does not have a physical plant at the moment, although Hoppes said it is a future project. For now, he produces his wine at Canon Del Sol, where his friend Vic Cruz makes wine, or at Goose Ridge Vineyards, where Hoppes is the winemaker. If he can do it, he would like to build a winery on Red Mountain, where he sources much of his fruit.
For the time being, Hoppes is happy with winemaking, baseball games and watching his children develop into unique individuals.
Winemaking, he says, from this aspect, is icing on the cake. ########