Wine and weed go to war in Oregon

Pot legalization has pitted a wine farmer against a weed farmer in an ugly, fragrant fight.

Wine and weed go to war in Oregon

Pot legalization has pitted a wine farmer against a weed farmer in an ugly, fragrant fight.

Moe Momtazi, an Oregon winemaker, was checking his grapes for diseases on April 26, 2017, when he spotted a trail of dried red splatter. The 67-year-old hopped out of his Jeep and walked to the edge of his property, where a cow was grazing.

As he got closer, he saw it: The the animal’s backside was speckled with blood. Its long swishy tail was nothing but a raw pink stump. Someone had snipped it off.

He quickly called police. “I am very sensitive to animals, so I was devastated,” Momtazi, a husky Iran native with salt-and-pepper hair, told me. “I knew it was a threat; it was scare tactics.”

Momtazi had some legitimate reasons to be nervous. Two days before, his healthy baby cow had mysteriously died near the same fence. And, over the past week, his phone had been flooded with frightening calls from strangers — including one who vowed to burn down his biodynamic vineyard.

The tail butchering, he said, was meant to send a twisted message a la the horse head in The Godfather: Back off. Or else.

Moe Momtazi says a nearby marijuana farm is tainting his grapes.

Moe Momtazi says a nearby marijuana farm is tainting his grapes.

Momtazi insists the likely culprit is his next-door neighbor, an outwardly chilled-out weed farmer named Richard Wagner. For months, the men have been locked in a fiery feud and a bizarre court battle stemming from Wagner’s legally grown pot plants.

Momtazi, who runs the renowned Maysara Vineyard with his family, is suing Wagner to stop the cannabis operation. He claims “foul-smelling particles” from the pot plants will taint the terroir — and the subtle flavor — of his meticulously grown grapes. Neighbors on another side of Wagner’s property, Harihara and Parvathy Mahesh, joined the lawsuit, claiming they’d be forced to cancel plans for their 2.5-acre vineyard because of the marijuana farm.

They’re fighting the turf war in Yamhill County, Oregon’s most lucrative wine county, which sits roughly 50 miles southwest of Portland. With its foggy hills, cool coastal breeze and farm-friendly landscape, it’s ideal for winemakers — and, more recently, weed growers.

Locally, the battle has infuriated marijuana activists and farmers, who have long worked to shed their image as criminals and troublemakers. “Momtazi just doesn’t like cannabis,” Wagner told me. “He sees himself as the king of this land and he doesn't want weed in his domain.”

Wagner is a wiry 34-year-old who looks like he’d fit in at a skatepark. But he’s not playing around: He has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his property, excavating the land and cultivating organic growing techniques, only to have his dream dashed, at least temporarily, by legal red tape, he said. (He denied hurting Momtazi’s cows.)

The bigger story here pits wine against weed — and traditional farmers against burgeoning marijuana entrepreneurs — in states where growing bud is freshly legal (Oregon legalized it in 2014). Nationally, cannabis-centric land battles are already being fought in courts from California to Massachusetts, according to cannabis activists and legal experts.“It’s a growing area, pardon the pun,” said Rachel McCart, a lawyer specializing in marijuana-related land use conflicts. “You’re going to see more and more cases like this.”

But the squabbles are as much about property values and quality of life gripes as a deep-seeded culture clash. In rural areas, pot farmers are popping up next to more conservative neighbors, many of whom aren’t exactly feeling mellow about the still-federally illegal crop sprouting just yards from their homes.

In Oregon wine country, neither man is backing down.

“He is a vindictive, vendetta-having sort of dude,” Wagner said of his wine-making neighbor. “But I’m not leaving with my tail between my legs.”

Momtazi contended: “I will fight this until I have breathed every last breath.”

The wine guy

If Momtazi sometimes sounds “out there” when he talks about grapes, it’s because he’s obsessed with them.

“I believe that wine has a spirit,” he said. “People have criticized me in the past, saying my style is witchcraft or voodoo — but it’s about respecting Mother Earth.”

He sprays grape leaves with stinging nettle tea, instead of pesticides, to boost the plant’s immune system. He harvests by the celestial calendar, uses “green” manure in the soil and sometimes hangs dried cow bladders on site to soak up “cosmic forces.”

Momtazi's vineyard in Yamhill County, Oregon.

Momtazi's vineyard in Yamhill County, Oregon.

“All of the forces of nature have to work together, from all sides, to make wine like ours,” he said. “This is very important to me.”

Momtazi was born in Iran and is a civil engineer by trade. As a kid, he would follow his grandfather around on his mulberry farm near the Caspian Sea, rapid-firing questions about plants and soil. “He taught me that food is sacred,” he said. “Where I come from, farming is a noble thing.”

In 1971, he left Iran to study at the University of Texas in Arlington and returned six years later. After a revolution to overthrow the Persian monarchy seized the country, he and his wife, Flora, made a plan to escape. “We were harassed by thugs because I was American-educated. My wife didn't want to cover her head and face,” he said. “It was not a good environment to raise a family.”

Momtazi and Flora fled the country when she was eight months pregnant and made it to the U.S. in 1983. Momtazi worked in manufacturing to support his three daughters, but agriculture was his true love.

In 1997, the couple paid $885,000 for a 496-acre abandoned wheat farm in McMinnville, which they planned to turn into a vineyard. The land was nestled in the Willamette Valley, which was then full of vegetable and Christmas-tree farms. It’s now among the America’s most renowned pinot noir-producing regions.

But starting a biodynamic vineyard on the wild and overgrown terrain wasn’t easy. “Many things had to be done manually because we didn’t use chemicals. We had to hand-hoe everything,” Momtazi said. “We had to go through 18 government agencies to construct our own water reservoirs.”

“We spent so much time and money on the land. Sometimes my wife wanted to kill me,” he said. “But pioneers catch the arrow from the back.”

Momtazi soon launched Maysara Winery — maysara means “house of wine” in Farsi — and planted vines in the summer of 1999. His first pinot noir was released two years later. The winery eventually moved on to other varietals, including rieslings and pinot blancs, which sell for $16 to $95 a bottle.

The vineyard has been praised by wine publications, such as Wine Enthusiast, which recently cheered its 2012 Jamsheed pinot noir for its “complex” fruit-driven “earthiness.” “Writers talk about our wines being distinct,” Momtazi said. “They talk about the spiciness that comes from healthy soil and also the aroma and flavor and deep color. You can taste flavors of banana and apricot.”

Momtazi also said his wines are perhaps not as allergy-inducing as other varietals. “Besides all of that, it is really healthy because of how we make it. With some conventional wine, you will get bad headaches or rashes because they use chemicals,” he said. “I am proud of what we do.”

So when Momtazi got word last year that his new neighbor planned to build a production facility and grow 1,000 pounds of weed several hundred feet from his property line, he bristled.

“I don’t want to trash the marijuana industry, but growers have done so much harm to the environment with harsh chemicals used to get rid of rodents,” he said.

Indeed, illegal weed farms have damaged ecosystems and killed wildlife, such as the barred owl, which feeds on rodents, in Northern California. Legally run Oregon cannabis farms, by contrast, are allowed to use three government-regulated rodenticides and one government-regulated rodent repellent, although many organic growers opt for greener methods. (Wagner denies using harmful chemicals.)

But even if Wagner follows the rules, he could still taint the delicate balance of life surrounding his vineyard — and threaten his biodynamic certification, Momtazi said. “We’ve worked so hard, and he is trying to trash what we believe in.”

The weed guy

Wagner sits next to several tiny pot clones sprouting from Solo cups in his living room. “It’s scary that the future of this farm is in one judge’s hands,” he said.

Wagner is a proud plant geek. He calls his healthy buds “the girls,” sports a green jungle-print baseball cap, and keeps a thick binder full of natural soil recipes in a downstairs office.

He has blissed-out body language unless he’s upset — then his bottom lip starts to shake.“They paint me as an angry, crime-creating, pesticide-using bad guy,” he said. “But I’m actually a really sensitive dude.”

He added: “I don’t wanna get too ‘woo-woo’ and shove crystals into cows' horns but [my farming] is beyond organic.”

Richard Wagner testing his product at his pot farm in Yamhill County, Oregon.

Richard Wagner testing his product at his pot farm in Yamhill County, Oregon.

Despite being surrounded by angry neighbors, Wagner’s weed farm feels like a Garden of Eden, with plush fruit trees and breathtaking views of rolling green hills. Wagner went to Clackamas Community College for horticulture and later worked in landscaping. Growing pot was passion and a hobby. “I did a lot of guerrilla growing; finding pockets where the sun is,” Wagner said, before pausing abruptly. “I have to be careful here.”

It’s tricky to tout your past experience in an industry that, until recently, could land you in jail. “I filled whole basements in Portland,” he said. “I was illegal for a long time — and now the whole point is to be above board and in compliance.”

After Oregon legalized recreational pot four years ago, he left his job installing gutters. “I said fuck it, I’m gonna try to get into the cannabis industry,” he said. He tapped his mother, Mary, a former executive at the health care firm Kaiser Permanente, as an investment partner.

“My mom was not a hard sell. She's retired. She did well. She's a boss; she knows what’s going on in the stock market,” Wagner said. “She has a manic-ness about her. I knew I could convince her because what I’m doing will improve the land,” he said.

Wagner and his mom spent nearly two years hunting for the perfect plot of land. In late 2016, they plunked down $682,000 for the 6.7-acre farm in McMinnville and later applied for permits to launch his weed business, Yamhill Naturals. As he waited for county approval, Wagner began sun-growing small amounts of hybrid strains such as Dawgfather OG and Cherry Pie.

Wagner surveying his land.

Wagner surveying his land.

One reason Wagner chose the plot, aside from its temperate climate, was its proximity to Momtazi’s vineyard. He’d read about the winemaker’s sustainable farming practices, and banked on being near clean, pesticide-free air and land, he said. He hoped the men could be “two biodynamic farms doing good things,” he said. Maybe even friends.

But he soon learned there was no chance of that. “I thought it would be ‘live and let live’ out here,” he said. “But man. I was wrong.”

The feud

Not long after Wagner moved in, he logged onto Instagram and excitedly announced his plans. “The future sight of greenhouses, and processing facility. Watch for the build out coming soon!” he wrote with the hashtag #recreationalmarijuana in January 2017.

His blueprint called for a half-acre of marijuana plants, a 8,000-square-foot facility, and a 32,000-gallon water tank for growing, breeding, processing, and packaging cannabis.

The next month, he sent postcards to four nearby residents, including Momtazi and others with whom he shared a small private road. “I am your new neighbor at the end of the road,” he said, adding his phone number. “I also would like to discuss my plans for my new farming venture.” Momtazi called him not long after.

“We talked about biodynamics; it was a good conversation. He said maybe we can learn from one another,” Wagner recalled. “Then I mentioned I would be growing cannabis. And he went from being totally cool to saying, ‘I'm going to get my attorney’ — and hanging up on me.”

Wagner did not need permission from the county to grow weed because his property was zoned for farm use. But he needed permits to process it. While seeking those, he cited plans to make marijuana extracts by using highly flammable solvents, sparking fears from neighbors.

In April 2017, more than a dozen nearby residents flocked to a county meeting to criticize his plan. This phenomenon is common with new pot farms nationwide, according to Keith Stroup, founder and legal Counsel for NORML, a pro-cannabis group that aims to rally support for legalizing marijuana.

Momtazi said use of pesticides on pot plants would pollute his water reservoir. One neighbor complained that it would lower his property values. And another said the smell of pot plants would trigger her migraine headaches. (There was no odor coming from the farm when The Outline visited in early May.)

“He kept the plan to grow marijuana hidden from everybody,” Momtazi recalled. The county tentatively approved plans for a on-site processing plant — but Wagner’s caginess with neighbors made him suspicious.

Soon after the meeting, Momtazi and the Maheshes sued Wagner. “Marijuana processing facilities generate foul, skunky smells that vent into the outside air environment,” the lawsuit, which was filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court, proclaims. “The foul-smelling particles or chemicals will migrate by air... and will negatively impact the quality and suitability of current or future grapes.”

Harihara Mahesh wrote in court papers that their in-the-works vineyard would be “immediately and irreparably damaged” by the odor. He also demanded a temporary restraining order to stop Wagner from using a shared road to produce cannabis products.

A judge refused to toss the case, citing alleged financial damage suffered by Momtazi. In court papers, the vinter said that a buyer cancelled an order of grapes due to the vineyard’s proximity to the planned marijuana operation. “We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of [Wagner],” Momtazi said. “This is not a grudge. He has really adversely affected our business.”

Wanger contends, “This lawsuit is insane. It [says I’m] ‘trespassing’ for future foul-smelling particles.”

Soil ready to grow marijuana.

Soil ready to grow marijuana.

From there, things got uglier. The Oregonian ran an article about the fight on April 19, 2017, prompting more than 500 comments, many of them heated. Momtazi soon got a flood of calls from angry weed smokers and activists. One threatened to torch his vineyard. “Try to live peacefully with your neighbors, you dumbass motherfuckers!” one caller proclaimed. "Ganja rules," not wine, yet another reminded Momtazi in a menacing voice.

A day before The Oregonian ran its article, the winery had posted an image of its adorable baby cow on Facebook — and a worker found it dead just days later, Momtazi said.

Then came the tail snipping.

Wagner said he’s “absolutely aghast” that Momtazi would point a finger at him. “I've been blamed for the death of a cow. That’s character assassination,” he said. “I love cows!”

He said Momtazi made up the story to discredit him. “He would absolutely be comfortable hurting a cow and calling the sheriff and blaming it on me,” Wagner said.

And he’s been harassed, too, he claims. “[Neighbors] have chased my friends' vehicles with cameras, like I’m some kind of drug kingpin,” he said. One of them warned Wagner’s contractor to “make sure you get your money” and began gossiping about the pending lawsuit, he said.

Neighbors appealed with the county to reverse the decision to greenlight Wagner’s farm. On June 1, the Board of Commissioners voted 2-to-1 to uphold the appeal — which put plans for the cannabis operation on hold. After the vote, neighbors laughed and cheered, Wagner said. “They were all smug-faced and feeling good.”

Worse, his weed business has been forced into limbo.“Everything from the start of the farm has been frozen, from building permitting to [business] licensing,” Wagner said. “They have done so much damage to me.”

He’s particularly mad at Momtazi. “This guy has a 15-year history of throwing money at his problems,” Wagner said. To stop another neighbor from spraying chemicals on plants, he once reported her to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “He’ll do anything to get a result.���

The growing problem

Oregon isn’t the only place where fights over pot farms have gotten nasty. Last June, a Colorado court ruled that horse ranchers could sue a marijuana grower whose warehouse allegedly emitted odors and attracted thieves.

Neighbors in Wenatchee, WA also complained that the smell of a nearby marijuana operation was so potent that it crept into their homes and prevented them from grilling food outdoors. And at least five lawsuits were filed against farmers in San Luis Obispo, CA, who allegedly depleted the natural water supply, littered the environment with trash, and used dangerous chemicals.

“You have a pungent aroma and light and noise pollution from greenhouses and fans — all of those things are upsetting to neighbors. All of those things affect property values,” said McCart.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in southern Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts. More are likely to pop up soon, including conflicts that pit vinters against weed growers, according to McCart and Stroup.

Recreational marijuana is now legal in nine states, including California, which boasts an ideal temperate climate for both wine and sun-grown weed. California already generates more than $35 billion annually in wine revenue and cannabis sales are expected to hit $6.5 billion by 2020, according to a joint study by the firms New Frontier and The Arcview Group.

But a grower next door could pose a big problem for winemakers, said Gregory Jones, the director of the Center for Wine Education at Linfield college in Oregon. “If I owned a vineyard and a cannabis farm went in next door, I would be extremely concerned about the aromas and oils given off,” said Jones, who specializes in the study of climate structure for viticulture. “When those oils get on grape skins, we have no clue what it does. There just hasn’t been the research.”

Studies have shown that notes of eucalyptus can be tasted in wines when grapes are grown in close proximity to those trees. And grapes cultivated in areas ravaged by forest fires have taken on a smoky “ashtray quality,” Jones said.

In areas where pot farms are emerging, vineyard owners may have a different reason to be nervous. “Some people say it could affect their workforce, that it will be harder to find labor,” Wagner said. Now that it’s easily available, revelers and relaxation-seekers may end up spending part of their cash on joints, instead of all of it on vino. “It could absolutely affect the sale of wine,” he said.

A grower next door could pose a big problem for winemakers.

Rural “values” also play a role in the growing number of weed-centric fights, according to cannabis activists and legal experts. “People object to living next to what they consider a criminal enterprise,” McCart said. “You’ve got guns and cash in the same place — that’s one facet.”

Yamhill County, for example, has historically been a conservative farming area. In 2014, more than half of voters in the county — 50.4 percent — were against legalizing cannabis while 56 percent of the state as whole supported it, according to data compiled by The Oregonian.

“Many older people in these areas have spent much of their lives with an aversion to marijuana culture,” said Stroup. “We have to be sensitive to that reality — but I don't think we should give in to it,” he said. “Land rights shouldn’t extend beyond your own property, just because you have a vineyard.”

The stigma that pot farms and other cannabis operations draw crime is simply untrue, he said. “Some of these people envision that marijuana operations will change their communities; that there will be a crime wave,” he said. “But, in fact, studies have shown that crime rates generally decrease in areas where marijuana businesses like licensed dispensaries go in,” he said.

“I think we may soon see cannabis farmers with some of the same concerns as vineyard owners, about the climate, so they can produce [flavors] that distinguish them from the guy down the street.”

The future

Despite the feud, Wagner still plans on running a craft-quality weed farm; he envisions a future in which sparking a joint is as normal as popping a cork. “If interstate [sales] happen, there’s gonna be a whole new wave of investors. People know that Oregon grows great weed just like California,” he said. He’s going to stick around for that. “At this point, leaving would be beyond traumatizing,” he said. “It would scar my whole being.”

The legal headache has so far cost him $40,000 in lawyer fees, and he’ll be lucky if his bud hits the shelves by the middle of next year, he said. Eventually, he hopes to grow up to an acre of cannabis.

Wagner envisions a future in which sparking a joint is as normal as popping a cork.

His production building is still in the works. “I plan to maintain this place to the highest aesthetic,” he said. “It’s gonna look classy as shit.” In the meantime, he’s been excavating the land — digging flat plots into the hillside for raised plant beds — and working with architects and government agencies, he said. He and Momtazi have still never met in person.

But the lawsuit is pending, and Momtazi refuses to give up. “I’ll be fine with [Wagner] living there and growing some marijuana plants for himself. It’s not that I hate marijuana; every plant has its benefit. But doing it commercially so close to my fence line, I can’t take that,” he said. “I will fight it to the end. I will take it to federal court, if I have to. ”

Wagner, on the other hand, hopes the whole thing somehow blows over, considering both men “believe in harmonizing with nature” and “making the land better.”

Plus, they both have a passion for the pleasures of plant world. “I’m real similar to him,” he said. “Wine and weed should be able to get along.”

CorrectionAn earlier version of this story said that Richard Wagner left his job cleaning gutters after weed became legal in Oregon. Wagner was employed installing gutters, not cleaning them.

Natalie O’Neill is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon. Photos by Leah Nash.