A Cowichan Bay couple pursued their dreams and created an award-winning winery
From corporate suits to farm boots, a Cowichan Bay couple strives to create delicious wines while being stewards of the land.
Turning a dream into reality
Linda and Mark Holford moved from Calgary to Vancouver Island in pursuit of less snow and more home-grown wine.
“My husband’s dream was always to have a winery,” Linda says. “He made wine with his father and grandfather, and we always made wines on our own as much as we could amateur-wise.”
Linda has experience in corporate business planning and worked in budgeting reserves and gas marketing. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental engineering. He previously worked in health, safety and environment in the oil and gas industry. The couple capitalized on their strengths and drew up a plan to launch a winery.
After taking a few wine-making courses and “talking to the winery owners and makers here, they encouraged us that this was something a husband-and-wife team could do," Linda says.
Finding the right fit
In 2005, Linda and Mark started their new business venture on Rocky Creek in Ladysmith and aptly named their business Rocky Creek Winery.
“We weren’t farmers, so we started with a three-acre property” for the vineyard, Linda says.
“We lived in a subdivision at the time, started the winery out of our house and had to drive to the vineyards. That business profile didn’t work for us after a couple years.”
As a result, the couple moved to Cowichan Bay in 2008 and kept the original business name.
Ensuring quality and care
Establishing a winery is a significant investment and it takes time for the vines to develop once planted. In fact, the grapes require five years before they can be processed commercially, Linda says. So, Linda and Mark take great care of their vineyards to create high-quality wines.
On their property, one vineyard is the estate with Blattner crosses and sustainable farm practices and the other is their Spanish vineyard with Tempranillo grapes.
In September and October, grapes are handpicked into small bins, as not to crush the grapes until the destemmer at the winery. The grapes are processed within hours after picking as the commute from the vineyard to the winery is quite short! The process makes for a long day for the winemaker, but this attention to detail contributes to the elegant tastes of their wines.
Last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Linda, Mark and their daughter Robin created a premium wine called Sirius, named after the dog constellation. They first planted the grapes for this wine in 2008, so it took 12 years for this product to come to fruition.
In addition, Rocky Creek Winery offers such wines as Pinot Gris, TLC - White blend, Robin’s Rose, On the Mark - Red blend, Pinot Noir, Wild Blackberry and Katherine’s Sparkle.
Their go-to wine is the Pinot Gris, which is available as a white wine.
Taking care of the land
Linda and Mark have an eco-friendly and sustainable approach to farming and wine making.
For instance, they space the rows in between the vines much wider than those commonly found in commercial vineyards in the Cowichan Valley. They also aligned the vines with the slope of the property to maximize air flow, which reduces disease pressure on the plants.
These wider rows also allow natural species to maintain a healthy ecosystem and animals make their homes in the trees and shrubs that surround the property. Rocky Creek does not have any permanent irrigation system. After the grapes are planted, their roots search deep into the earth to find the aquifer below ground.
The winery also has energy-saving equipment to conserve the amount of electricity needed throughout production.
Love for the Cowichan Valley
Linda loves the weather on Vancouver Island, and it allows her to garden year-round, which is another hobby she enjoys.
Also, “we love food and wine, and this region has so many local products. And the neighbourhood is phenomenal. The people and products are great – you can go down the road and get whatever you need at farmer’s markets. You can buy true products at a reasonable price,” she says.
The concept of buying and staying local has been reinforced throughout the pandemic. Linda and Mark source local products as much as they can. In fact, all their wines are made exclusively from Island-grown grapes. They do not bring over any fruit from the Okanagan.
“As a small business owner and consumer, I see the value of staying local. … We are battling the quick and easy big box stores. COVID-19 has made people look closer to home and discover all the hidden gems, that are really authentic here and the great community,” Linda says.
Linda and Mark are so appreciative of the local loyalty that Islanders have shown throughout the pandemic.
“If we were in another area developing our winery, I’m not sure where our businesses would be,” Linda says. “I have my regulars who’ve stayed with and supported us. They have always been appreciated, but especially now.”
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Photo credits: Katherine Holford