Fidelitas Winery is all-faithful to Bordeaux grape varieties, modern-craft winemaking techniques, and Washington State’s Red Mountain terroir.
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
IMAGES BY TEGRA STONE NUESS
At Wine Boss, a winemaking facility tucked into a tiny industrial corner of Richland, Washington, Charlie Hoppes produces 35,000 cases of wine for as many as 20 different clients. As the self-proclaimed “wine boss,” Charlie owns the company, and his own winery, Fidelitas, is his biggest customer. But he also crafts wine for notable labels like Hamilton Cellars and Gamache Vintners.
The building is cavernous, a former beer distributor’s warehouse. Charlie leads me past oak and stainless steel fermentation tanks to the barrel room, in the back of the facility, where 3,000 French and American oak vessels are stacked five-high. In the corner, cradled in a home-made wood rack, sits a single odd barrel called an Ovonum, its fresh oak staves curved into an improbable egg shape. Much like a concrete egg, the oval shape keeps the fermenting juice circulating over a thin layer of lees, yielding a silky texture, well-developed aromatics and limited impact by the oak.
“I saw this at a wine show, and I thought it was really cool, so I bought one,” the wine boss says. It is the only Ovonum barrel sold in America.
After 30 years of making wine, Charlie, in some ways, is still like a kid in a candy shop. Cool new things intrigue him. Innovation is part of his process. He produces consistently rich and complex wines, using standards and traditions established over centuries. Wine ratings in the 90s are commonplace for him, but he hasn’t stopped learning and refining his craft.
As one of the premier winemakers in Washington, winery owner, 2013 Seattle Magazine Winemaker of the Year, and consulting winemaker to an impressive list of clients, Charlie is still excited by experimentation, constantly discovering more nuances of wine and the land that produces it.
His first vintage, as assistant winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Snoqualmie/Langguth Winery, was 1988. Over the next 12 years, he moved to Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, back to Chateau Ste. Michelle as head winemaker in Woodinville, and to Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, where he worked as head winemaker. While there, he launched Fidelitas in 2000, then left Three Rivers in 2002 to devote full attention to his new venture. Today, Charlie bottles around 7,000 cases of premium wine for Fidelitas, all of it grown on Red Mountain.
But it wasn’t always this way. Around the time he launched Fidelitas, Charlie told me that he didn’t want to be limited to one location by owning a vineyard. He reasoned that there was too much good fruit to work with from around the state, and he preferred to source his grapes instead of grow them.
“Huh,” he grins, when I remind him. “I probably did say that.” But over the years, that exploratory approach to Washington wines led him to a different conclusion and a single location: Red Mountain.
From the start, Charlie built Fidelitas as a producer of premium wines, and he often honored his favorite sites and the growers who managed them with vineyard-designated wines. Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, from the historic site in Horse Heaven Hills, was for years a gem in the Fidelitas catalog. Boushey Vineyards, in the Yakima Valley, provided much of his fruit in those early years, as well.
But it didn’t take long before Red Mountain caught his attention. In 2005, Charlie recalls, he worked for the first time with fruit from the tiny AVA. Two years later, he bought land there and opened his winery’s tasting room. In 2008, he planted three acres of Bordeaux wine grapes. His transition had begun.
By 2009, a “significant amount” of Fidelitas production came from Red Mountain, from vineyards like Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. “That was when I realized this place is special,” he says. His fascination with the area continued to grow, and, in 2015, he bought another 10 acres and planted them to Bordeaux varieties.
Today, Charlie says, “we’re all in on Red Mountain.” He left behind some of his favorite sites, a move made a little easier when Paul Champoux retired in 2014. Another factor: Dick Boushey manages Charlie’s Fidelitas Estate Vineyard. It’s not just the land that produces great fruit, Charlie says, it’s the people who work it.
“I truly believe that when we talk about terroir, we don’t talk enough about the person pulling all the levers to make the terroir,” he says. “Land, water, slope, trellis — all those things are very, very important. But I think we forget the most important thing, and that’s the farmer.”
Today, the Fidelitas portfolio includes wine from some of Red Mountain’s most venerable vineyards, including Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, and Red Heaven. Charlie counts his own Fidelitas Estate among his favorites. And he is enthralled with Quintessence Vineyards — 300 acres spreading over the slope at the top of the mountain. “It’s one of the best vineyards I’ve ever seen in Washington,” he exults. “It’s phenomenal.”
Quintessence appeals to Charlie’s inquisitive side by offering grapes from diverse clones. Grape vines are cloned by propagating new vines from cuttings from a mother vine. Vintners perpetuate their strongest, most desirable vines, and the resulting grapes are referred to by a clonal designation. The ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon cabernet clone 8, popularized in California after the end of Prohibition, is widely planted in Washington, he explains, and it does very well here, with “lots of dark fruit flavors, cherry and blackberries. But it’s sort of one-dimensional.” Fidelitas Quintessence Cabernet Sauvignon is fermented from virus-free clones certified by the French government, trademarked as ENTAV/INRA 191 and 169 clones. “When you try these new clones, you see the differences in the flavors. They just add depth, another layer, a different dimension to our wines. I think they could really change things in Washington.”
Experimenting with new clones, he says, will be a big part of Fidelitas’s future. At his own estate, he has planted six different clones, including clone 8, along with others that he has never even tasted. “I saw it as an opportunity,” he explains.
But just as his exploration of vineyards across the state helped form his decision to stay in one AVA, his forays into new techniques have taken him back to some old-school traditions. The day we strolled through the barrel room, sauvignon blanc from Quintessence was fermenting in the small Ovonum barrel. He expects the shape of the barrel to help create a cleaner, crisp wine. But the oak is just as important.
“There’s an enhanced flavor that I like when you have wood in direct contact with the grapes during fermentation,” he explains. Barrel-aging has always been important, but Charlie is investing in more oak for the first steps of winemaking. In 2015, he purchased two open-top oak fermenters, and last year added some 40-liter and 500-liter closed-top wood tanks. The tanks allow him to use different methods of sur lie fermentation — some are pumped over, and some are simply rolled to move the lies around. With each technique, and the size and shape of each tank, Charlie draws different flavors from the grapes, giving him more tools when making his final blends. Eventually, he’d like Fidelitas wines to be 100% fermented in wood.
Charlie sums up his methods with one phrase: “continuous improvement all the time.” Sometimes that means trying out a cool new barrel or looking for new flavors in different clones. At other times, it means returning to ancient methods like oak fermentation — what he calls “back-to-the-future winemaking.” But it always means trying to bottle excellence, whether from old or new sources.
A few years ago, Charlie turned to the original merlot vines planted in 1975 by the Williams and Holmes families at Kiona, the area’s first vineyard. In May 2018, he is releasing Fidelitas Old Vines Merlot — Charlie’s latest tribute to the best of Red Mountain.
Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest. She is a fellow of the Professional Wine Writers Symposium.