Norgard Farms

“Intuition and observation are a big part of farming,” says Tim Norgard, a hands-on farmer with 100 acres of pears and 130 acres of grapes on three ranches in Ukiah Valley. He has just come in from working outside on a hot afternoon. His wife Alexis, vivacious and a natural hostess, pours tall glasses of ice water.

            Born and raised in Ukiah Norgard went to the University of California at Berkeley. He was drawn to UCB where his maternal grandfather John Kerchen had been the dean of UCB’s school of economics in the 1930s. His dad Sterling Norgard got his degree from the Haas School of Business at UCB in 1946.

            “My degree is in agricultural sciences, which may seem like a strange degree to get in Berkeley,” he laughs, “but it allowed me to study entomology, plant pathology and other science courses that added up to 121 units in the natural sciences.” Tim might have been on the way to becoming a doctor but he knew he wanted to come back to Ukiah and farm.

            Tim’s dad Sterling moved to Ukiah in 1943 when Sterling’s brother Morris had a fatal accident on his farm. Norgard’s sister-in-law asked him to help her out. She and Tim’s mom moved to Ukiah thinking it would be temporary but they stayed. Sterling added to the family’s property holdings and slowly expanded to grapes.      

            “Dad worked hard to build the ranch,” says Tim. In addition to raising pears he custom farmed for people and he purchased fruit from other farms to sell on the market.

            In 1963 the senior Norgard purchased what the Norgards call Giannini Ranch, named for A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America, which really “owned the place,” he smiles. The property was once part of the Hildreth family holdings on Old River Road and included a French Colombard vineyard. “We were the largest grower of French Colombard in the county at one time,” says Tim. That versatile grape with its honeyed aromas and crisp yet melon-y flavors is not as popular as it used to be and the Norgards have replaced all those old vines with other grapes.

            After Tim came home from college in 1971 he and his dad planted their first Pinot Noir, which has all been replanted since 2000. In 1987 Tim purchased the Holliday Ranch in Talmage. It had French Colombard, Carignane and Petite Sirah vineyards which Tim has since replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Chardonnay.  

            Tim opens a bottle of 2005 Pinot Noir, one of several varieties he and his friend local realtor and renowned home vintner Ernie Fine make for themselves. He wants to show me what Ukiah Valley can do for this grape that is renowned from nearby Anderson Valley. “I call those Pinots subtle wines,” he smiles as we swirl our glasses to take in the aroma. Taking a sip, I find this wine is big and bold and full of life, flavor and packs a punch. “I like Pinot Noir with intense body and flavor,” he says and that is what he makes.      

            Cabernet Sauvignon is Alexis’ favorite wine. She prefers the fruit forward ripened taste of Mendocino Cabernet over Napa Valley’s big woody wines. Cabernet was also the favorite wine of Tim’s mother Kathryn She loved Parducci and was not interested in trying her son’s homemade wine until she was poured a glass of Tim’s homemade wine, she became an instant fan.

            Alexis grew up in Los Altos Hills. She moved to Rocklin near Sacramento where she was was a “city girl” who enjoyed drinking both white and red wines but learned to appreciate red wine after meeting Tim through a mutual friend. She was the administrator for a steel manufacturing plant and began commuting between Sacramento and Ukiah. They married at Redwood Valley Cellars in October, 2005 and honeymooned for three weeks in Tuscany where they both delighted in tasting Italy’s famed Brunello wines. Brunello, a wine from grapes related to Sangiovese and made in the small town of Montalcino since the 1800s, is an “elite” robust distinctive red wine aged in oak.

            Alexis helps out with paperwork and marketing. “She added touches to my presentation at the recent Mendocino Showcase that made it more interesting than simply bottles of wine on a table,” he says. She also uses her corporate event planning skills and coordinates weddings and showers for friends, something she’s thinking about developing into a business. “I love events,” she says. She also loves to cook. One of her specialties is figs stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese, drizzled with honey and baked until the cheese melts. The flavors go well with Tim’s homemade Zinfandel.

             The Norgards keep busy in the community where Tim serves on the Allied Grape Growers Board of Directors and the California Pear Growers Association Board of Directors. Alexis is on the Mendocino Farm Bureau Board of Directors and serves as the fundraising committee chair.  Tim’s grown twin daughters, Lisa Humphrey and Laura Kay Norgard live on his Holliday Ranch in Talmage. Lisa is married to Darrell Humphrey and they both work for the Ukiah school district.

            The Norgards both golf and take weekend golf vacations. Tim is an avid hunter and has been to Africa five times. They just returned from South Africa and have a video photo frame on the kitchen counter flashing shots of the many animals they saw including elephants, giraffes and baboons.

            Growing both grapes and pears helps keep farming “diversified,” says Tim. “It’s a good thing. I can utilize my labor and equipment more efficiently. His two foremen Dinaldo Lopez and Lionel Nunes have been with him for 28 and 30 years respectfully. (His dad’s foreman Jose Brisano worked for him for more than 50 years.) He also employs six to eight full time employees. “We have great long term relationships and it helps to have that kind of mutual loyalty,” he says.

            All the vineyards are certified Fish Friendly. “I’m proud to say I haven’t used an insecticide in ten years,” he smiles. In 1980 he began mowing instead of disking between the vines. It not only saved money but was faster. And he discovered the value that cover crops have by breaking up the soil and allowing more moisture to remain in the soil. “The vines responded well and natural predators came back. We have no leafhoppers here.”

            Norgard’s varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. He is one of the few growers of Chenin Blanc, a white grape that has flavors of pear, melon and tropical fruits, and is grown on benchland. It goes to such winemakers as Greg Graziano and wines as Elizabeth Spencer.

            “I try to sell in-county as much as possible,” he says. Most of his grapes go to Mendocino Wine Company which makes Parducci, among other local brands. Norgard’s grapes go into Parducci’s Yellow Cab and True Grit red wines. “I started selling to Parducci in 1984 when John Parducci was still there and have stayed through the current owners,” he says, adding, “I appreciate that they have Mendocino on their labels.” Greg Graziano purchases Norgard’s Chenin Blanc and makes a late harvest dessert wine. Some of his Zinfandel goes to Orin Swift’s “The Prisoner” which gained cult status after being named one of the top 100 wines by the Wine Spectator.

            In addition to raising premium grapes, Tim and Alexis appreciate the clean air, water and the ability to raise their own food.  “Before I met Tim I knew about farming but I didn’t really know what it takes and don’t think people appreciate how much work goes into raising food,” says Alexis. Tim notes that it’s difficult for young people to start out because farming is capital intensive. “Most people who get into farming also do something else to support it,” he says, “I’m unusual because I set out to make my living farming.”

            Tim loves being outdoors checking on the vines and orchard and doing more than observing. “I get more exercise in one day than most people get at a gym in a week.” 

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