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Mark and Linda Holford walking in their Cowichan Bay vineyard.
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PlantingMark Holford and workers getting ready to plant vines.
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PlantingHarvesting the grapes at Rocky Creek%u2019s Cowichan Bay Vineyard.
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Grape StompAnnual grape stomp at Rocky Creek is a family affair.
Growing a winery takes a steady hand, hard work, plus a shipload of smarts to ride the waves along the way. For Rocky Creek Winery co-owners Mark and Linda Holford, progress has been gradual, focused, and remarkable. They have never wavered from their goal of making the best possible wine while staying true blue to the region, 100% Vancouver Island, in which the grapes are grown and the wine is made.
A story of corporate suits to gum boots, the couple met in Calgary, Linda’s hometown, while Mark was on a co-operative studies assignment with an oil company. She is a pipeline technologist, and he is a chemical engineer with a masters in environmental engineering, they went off to Sarnia to work in the petrochemical industry. Within a few years, Mark found a job at a pulp and paper mill on Vancouver Island and they bought a house in Ladysmith. “Since my early teens, when I helped my father make wine at home, I’ve always wanted to be involved in winemaking,” says Mark. “And Vancouver Island was the perfect place to do it.”
Relying on Mark’s amateur winemaking know-how and Linda’s experience running budgets for large organizations, they started Rocky Creek in the 900 sq. ft. basement of their suburban house. “We’d set up our basement with stainless steel tanks and other necessary paraphernalia and our garage was the crushpad,” says Mark. “People kept telling us we were doing things backwards by starting the winery first.” Without their own vineyard in tow, they had no choice but to obtain a commercial license and sourced fruit from local growers. The first year’s release of 600 cases attracted carloads of buyers to their basement “tasting room.” The line-up included Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Ortega varieties from a three acre vineyard in Chemainus, 20 kms away, and port-style blackberry wine from wild berries harvested by the Chemainus First Nations band.
Three harvests later, the Holfords decided that the house would not do and bought a seven acre farm next to Venturi Schulze Vineyards in Cowichan Bay. Planting a five acre vineyard meant they could obtain a land-based winery license, a step that would result in sharing less with the government in taxes and charges.
Of the five acres, the authorities required 2½ of them to be cultivated blackberries, somewhat redundant given the supply of wild blackberries on the Island. Hybrids were planted in the remaining acreage: Maréchal Foch from cuttings and a selection of hybrids developed by Austrian breeder, Valentin Blattner, consisting of 1,000 Cabernet Foch vines along with four white varieties, similar to the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
Using Blattner hybrids promotes sustainable farming, explains Mark. “Extremely resistant to disease, they do not require chemical sprays.” The Holfords have taken advantage of eco-friendly innovations in the design of their west-facing vineyard: “Vines have been planted to take advantage of sun exposure, running both East-West and North-South. The rows are spaced wider than usual to promote airflow, and the rows are kept green to maintain a healthy eco-system and reduce the use of fungicides.”
Consisting of concrete and steel (not pressure-treated wood, which releases toxins into the soil), the trellis system employs a high-hanging Geneva Double Curtain arrangement. This allows vigorous growth at the top and, when the spreading shoots drape downward, the plant is signaled to slow its growth. “It’s the perfect, natural system to tame growth for our warm weather climate and the disease-resistant hybrids we’ve selected,” Linda explains.
While rain and intense heat are not big issues during the long growing season – great for Pinot Noir - rains start in earnest by mid-October in most years creating conditions for powdery mildew and botrytis. Although 2011’s fine fall was the exception, growers must be prepared, according to Mark. “As for sulphur-based sprays, care must be taken because there is a long post-spray period before the grapes can be picked and used for wine,” says Mark.
To ease the couple’s intense workload, they take advantage of a “farm stay” program which brings people from all over the world to experience life on a real farm. “Relatively inexperienced, workers provide much-needed labour, and we provide room and board and chance for them to see the Island,” Linda says. “From April until December, we get 10 or so people and they often have dinner with our family. It’s a win-win.”
Winner of many awards, Rocky Creek’s Wild Blackberry wine has been a hit from the start. Although 16%, of it is not fortified or oaked, highlighting natural fruit and balanced richness on the finish.
As a pilot test, Mark tried out ZORK closures on 8 cases of Wild Blackberry wine in 2008. “He hates screwcaps and synthetics are not resealable,” says Linda. “Also, the type of ZORK used for still wine is slightly air permeable like cork, which allows red wines to age.” The closures were so popular with customers that Rocky Creek now plans to use ZORK for all of its wines, including Jublilee, a pink sparkling wine made from a blend of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
A unique feature of both Rocky Creek sparkling wines, including Katherine’s Sparkle, named after the Holford’s second daughter, is the use of encapsulated yeast during the second fermentation. “We can make a crisp, elegant brut style sparkling wine without the space and labour required to produce traditional méthode champenoise bubbly, a major benefit for a small winery. The process keeps yeast away from the contents and makes riddling a breeze.”
Not resting on their laurels, Rocky Creek also makes a show-stopping red from Tempranillo grapes purchased from a friend’s nearby vineyard. It is only made in years that produce ripe grapes, like 2009 and 2011. In 2009, the small private release totaled 144-500 ml bottles, each priced at $50.
With 11 acres of vines owned or controlled in Cowichan Bay and Chemainus, the Holfords produce 1,500 cases a year. “The goal is to continue growing but stay manageable,” Mark says. “Under 5,000 cases is the limit.”