Gibsons’ Hillside Vineyards

Gibsons’ Hillside Vineyards: Grapes and community

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Above their Hillside Vineyards Norma and Morgan Gibson’s Mediterranean-ranch style home is filled with the warmth and coziness of family photos, a cookie jar collection and Norma’s paintings. Their vineyards located on the Talmage Bench grow some of the best Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc grapes around. And both are known for giving back to the community.

Norma, born a Johnstone, was raised in Talmage in a house at the historic Lucchesi Vineyard. Her parents worked for 35 years at the nearby state mental hospital, now the City of 10,000 Buddhas. Shortly after Norma was born her parents bought their first home in what was a brand new subdivision off Talmage Road. “We had the second house built in the subdivision,” says Norma. She graduated from Ukiah High in 1963 and went to American River College studying to be a legal secretary.

When Norma returned to Ukiah she went to work in law offices. She moved away for three years with her first husband Bill Daniel while he attended Cal Poly. In 1970, they purchased the 14 and a half acres where she and Morgan now live. “There was nothing here then, just woods and a half acre of French Colombard,” she remembers. Her parents said they couldn’t imagine what possessed her to be a farmer. The house where they live was built in 1974.

In 1975 they planted two and half acres of Zinfandel. Ten years later they purchased the neighboring Gualdini Ranch. Hillside Vineyards now include 40 acres of vines, 22 in Sauvignon Blanc and 18 in Zinfandel.

Morgan also went to Ukiah High, having moved to the area when he was 14. He is a trained peace officer and a Mendocino County Sheriff’s Reserve officer. Both Norma and Morgan are on the Mendocino County Search and Rescue Team.

For years Norma worked in the vineyard while raising four kids. After she and Morgan married in 1989 they worked the vineyard together. In recent years they have hired Downey Management and use seasonal workers to help with the pruning, suckering, tying and harvesting. Morgan handles all of the tractor work including driving the tractor during harvest. This time of the year he is in the vineyard pruning or in the shop repairing equipment.

The vineyard was certified organic in 2005. “One reason we went organic was at the urging of Paul Dolan, who led the organic grapegrowing movement while when he was at Fetzer,” says Norma. Another reason to go organic was because of the death of daughter Heidi from Mitochondrial disease.

Mitochondrial diseases are most commonly the result of genetic mutation. Some are attributable to environmental factors, including prescription medication, that interfere with the mitochondrial function. (“Mitochondria convert food molecules to energy inside the body’s cells. The loss of Mitochondrial function is fatal.)

“We used Paraquot herbicide in the vineyard in the early 1970s. I was out there hoeing when Heidi was in utero,” says Norma, who has studied the disease and its causes and is on the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF) board. She knows that some kind of gene mutation took place in her daughter since no one else in the family carries the hereditary form of Mitochondrial dysfunction. Her conclusion is that the exposure to the herbicide was the cause. Norma devoted four years round the clock nursing and caring for Heidi as the disease ravaged her body over ten years. She was 27 when she passed away in 2001.

Norma got in involved with the UMDF when it was founded in 1996. She produces an annual fundraiser at her home and is an Ambassador who counsels families whose children are afflicted with the disease. “People call Norma in tears when they get the diagnosis,” says Morgan. There is no cure yet and it’s possible for entire families to be afflicted.

Norma has been the California State Chapter President, lobbied for federal funding for research and is currently on a nationwide advisory group. Norma’s next fundraiser for UMDF is in August. It includes a pot luck barbecue with a silent auction and Irish piano bar music played by the father of her son-in-law.

“After Heidi died I needed to do something to keep from bouncing off the walls,” says Norma. She took up oil painting, first on her own and then she enrolled in classes at Mendocino College. “She has a natural ability,” says Morgan, who is obviously proud of her work. She has moved on to watercolors and paints “almost every day,” she says. Norma belongs to Water Colors of Mendocino County and the Mendocino Art Association. She shows her paintings at the county fairs and Mendocino College Art shows.

As members of Mendocino County’s Search and Rescue since 1992 Morgan and Norma keep horses for back country assignments. “We used to get called out quite a bit,” says Morgan. Faster communication via cell phones and precise determination of location using GPS have lessened the Search and Rescue calls to around six a year. Search and Rescue members continue to be called for evidence searches around the discovery of a body.

Today, the Gibsons’ horses (Morgans) are mostly for pleasure. They also ride with the Sheriff’s posse in parades and they patrol the fairgrounds at Fair time. “Now we have an ATV squad,” relays Morgan while adding that “horses are efficient during searches. If they smell odd things or something isn’t natural, their ears go forward and that alerts us. You learn how to read your horse.” As if on cue, a beep and then the voice of a dispatcher can be heard on the Gibsons’ scanner speaker perched on a shelf in the kitchen. It is not a Search and Rescue call.

In the early days of grapegrowing the crops were sold mainly by word of mouth. Over the years Hillside grapes have been sold to a number of wineries outside the County such as Seghesio, Allied Grape Growers, Beringer, Weibel and Sutter Home. For years their grapes also went to Fetzer and but now go to Dolan who makes his wine at Parducci. The Gibsons began selling their Sauvignon Blanc to Frey Organic Winery and then got involved with a Napa brand, Elizabeth Spencer. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a rich full bodied fruity yet crisp and delicious representation of the grapes grown by the Gibsons.

Norma is proud of the Elizabeth Spencer wine, which is handled by Mendocino winemaker Dennis Patton. “In the ‘70s Dennis raised strawberries across the road and we used to take our kids to wait for the bus and sample his berries,” recalls Norma, who enjoys connections and coincidences that come with living a long time in the community. Elizabeth Spencer Sauvignon Blanc is available at SIP! Mendocino in Hopland, a wine shop specializing in wines made in or from grapes grown in Mendocino County.

As Morgan to heads out to the vineyard to do some pruning the dogs frolic along to the vineyard. We walk outside and look past a magnificent redwood at the vines. He explains, “We are cane pruning to leave longer canes on the vines this year. The theory is that leaving extra buds on longer canes will give us some extra frost protection. The 2008 frost killed us for the first time.” Generally cold air flows down allowing the frost to also flow down but 2008 had such a long period of subfreezing temperatures even the Hillside Vineyards were affected.

Norma, attractive with her pulled back hair, translucent skin and easy smile, exudes calm competence and self-directed motivation. She is in her element giving back to the causes she believes in. In addition to her work with UMDF and Search and Rescue, she has been active in promoting Mendocino wine grapes since the early 1980s when her kids were teenagers.

“From the beginning I’ve been committed to the success of Mendocino wines and wine grapes,” she says while listing her involvement over the years first with the Mendocino Winegrowers Association and currently as a Commissioner on the three-year-old Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission. She’s encouraged by Mendocino’s unified approach by the grape growers and wineries, which is a unique collaboration in the wine industry.

“We have been underrated forever,” she laments. With a sparkle in her blue eyes she adds, “That is changing and recognition of Mendocino wines is on the rise.”

Tasting Notes: Seared ahi tuna steaks with a wasabi, soy sauce and sesame oil drizzle with lightly dressed spinach leaves and caramelized roasted carrots mirrored and segued deliciously with Elizabeth Spencer Sauvignon Blanc made from Gibsons’ (Gibson’s?) Hillside grapes.

For more information on Hillside Vineyards contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission

Next week: Bells Echo Vineyard

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