How I Escaped the Islamist Regime in Iran … and Started a Winery in America
36 years after a harrowing escape from Islamist Iran, Moe Momtazi runs a successful family wine business.
The acclaimed Momtazi Vineyard, in McMinnville, Oregon. In 1997, Moe Momtazi, an Iranian refugee who'd arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum 14 years earlier, purchased 496 acres of an abandoned wheat farm and planted these vines.CREDIT: Courtesy Company
Moe Momtazi's Maysara Winery and his Momtazi Vineyard now sprawl across 532 acres of rolling Oregon hills. His pinot noirs get great reviews, and his grapes are coveted by the region's top winemakers. It all started with some inspiration from his ancestors--and fleeing Islamist Iran. --As told to Jane Porter
From when I was very young, I remember watching my father make wine in our basement. He used earthen vessels to store the wine. There was a clay paste that he would cover the top with and leave it to sit. Then he would get all the stems and berries out and press everything. What intrigues me is the care that went into it. In Persian and Zoroastrian culture, wine is considered a very sacred thing.
I was born and raised in Tehran. My parents would send me up north to the Caspian Sea to spend the summer with my grandparents. My grandfather taught me about holistic farming--he had a tea plantation and a rice plantation and grew mulberry trees for silkworms--and that our life really depends on what we consume.
I was fascinated with farming. But if you start with farming, you'll never make it. I wanted to get an education so I could buy land. In 1971, I came to the U.S. to study engineering at the University of Texas. After I graduated, I went back home. I worked as a project engineer, and then opened my own engineering company.
Then the revolution happened. Whenever Flora--my wife--would refuse to cover her face or to follow the Islamic dress code, we would get stopped and harassed by government thugs. When she was 24 and I was 30, she became pregnant. And we didn't want to raise our family there.
We escaped Iran in 1982, when my wife was eight months pregnant. We left through the mountains on motorcycles. It was really scary--and extremely difficult, because Flora was so pregnant. People were chasing us. The sun was very strong in the mountains, and she got big, painful blisters under her eyes. We got caught on the border by Pakistani officers, who threatened to turn us in. Those things never really disappear from your mind.
We went from Pakistan to Spain to Italy, back to Spain, to Mexico, and finally to Texas, in 1983, where we asked for political asylum. I found an engineering job. Then I started my own firm and sold it and we moved to Oregon in 1990, where I started a new company. Seven years later, we bought almost 500 acres.
Moe Momtazi in the cellar at Maysara Winery, with (from left) his daughters, Naseem, Hanna, and Tahmiene (the winemaker), a bottle of his Asha pinot noir, and his wife, Flora. CREDIT: Courtesy Company
In our philosophy of farming--biodynamic--you have to have a complete ecosystem. On our farm, we have plenty of forests, pastures, and reservoirs so that it doesn't have to rely on anything coming from outside. We have animals whose manure we collect. We make our own compost. We grow lots of medicinal herbs and plants. We had our three daughters work in the vineyard pruning, mowing--doing a lot of manual labor to teach them a work ethic. My oldest daughter went to Oregon State and studied food science and fermentation. After she graduated in 2006, she became our winemaker. My other daughters work for the winery in sales and marketing.
Early on, we decided selling grapes to the competition would help us cover expenses. Wine takes time: Our first planting was in '98 and our first wine was made in 2001. The first few years, we sold a lot of fruit to other wineries. Now, vineyards that use our grapes have a Momtazi Vineyard-designated stamp on their wine. Last year, we produced 500 tons of fruit. We used half for our own wine and sold half. In the beginning, I put up a small winery. Now it's more than 42,000 square feet. We make 12,000 to 18,000 cases of wine a year.
After the Islamists came to power, a lot of things were taken away from Persians. When the Islamists came, they said you can drink wine only in paradise. But wine stayed in our blood. In the old country, we don't have a word for winemaker. We believe the wine makes itself.
In the Field
Moe Momtazi didn't dream of ordinary farming. He dreamed of farming biodynamically, a laborious, chemical-free process that calls for the use of preparations made from herbs and manure. "I started by looking into the herbs and flowers our grandparents used to make tea," he says. "Our ancestors knew a lot more about agriculture. Big chemical companies have put it into peoples' minds that you can't do holistic farming. I decided to prove there are alternatives." Momtazi's winery grossed more than $2 million last year.