Massive Bridge Project Divides German Winemakers

Vineyards in Uerzig,Germany i i

Vineyards in the town of Uerzig climb the steep banks of the Mosel River in southwest Germany, where construction of a massive bridge and highway will soon resume. Although opinion is divided, many winemakers in the famous wine-making area -- which some call Germany's Napa Valley -- are adamantly opposed to the project. Courtesy of Robert Eymael hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Robert Eymael
Vineyards in Uerzig,Germany

Vineyards in the town of Uerzig climb the steep banks of the Mosel River in southwest Germany, where construction of a massive bridge and highway will soon resume. Although opinion is divided, many winemakers in the famous wine-making area -- which some call Germany's Napa Valley -- are adamantly opposed to the project.

Courtesy of Robert Eymael

Germany's picturesque Mosel River Valley has been a prime wine-growing region since the Romans first planted there. Blessed with abundant rain and sunshine, a long growing season and rich soil, the Mosel produces some of the finest Riesling wines in the world.

That's one reason a massive bridge and highway under construction across the Mosel River in southwest Germany has fiercely divided winemakers and locals alike. Some wine producers opposed to the project are now turning to their international customers and world-renowned wine critics to try to stop the project. But the bridge has its supporters, too.

'A Very, Very Monstrous Big Bridge'

Fourth-generation winemaker Katharina Prum sits in a stately living room in her family's stone manor house, which, like her family's vineyards, hugs the steep banks of the Mosel. Oil portraits of her great-grandparents — looking stern and intense — hang on either side of a window that looks out on vineyards first worked by those ancestors more than 200 years ago.

Katharina Prum at her family's estate and winery in the Mosel Valley i i

Fourth-generation winemaker Katharina Prum, co-owner of Joh. Jos. Prum winery in the Mosel Valley, opposes the bridge and roadway project, calling it "a monster in this valley" and an "attack on this region." She says it threatens the area's natural beauty -- as well as its natural watering system. Eric Westervelt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Westervelt/NPR
Katharina Prum at her family's estate and winery in the Mosel Valley

Fourth-generation winemaker Katharina Prum, co-owner of Joh. Jos. Prum winery in the Mosel Valley, opposes the bridge and roadway project, calling it "a monster in this valley" and an "attack on this region." She says it threatens the area's natural beauty -- as well as its natural watering system.

Eric Westervelt/NPR

She sees the bridge and roadway project as the biggest threat since the great late-19th century phylloxera insect epidemic that ravaged European vineyards.

It is "a very, very monstrous big bridge that is more than 160 meters [500 feet] high — higher than the Cologne cathedral — and more than a mile long. It is a monster in this valley," Prum says.

The 31-year-old lawyer, who runs the winery with her father, says she isn't a wine snob worried about the view. She fears that the sprawling bridge will not only spoil the beauty of what some call Germany's Napa Valley but also damage the vineyards' natural watering system. A forested area at the top of the vineyards slowly drains water down the steep slopes like someone steadily wringing out a small sponge.

"There was never an attack like this one. There has been a wine culture [for] about 2,000 years. You find pressing rooms from Roman times. And this area has been protected by all the generations which have lived here in the past 2,000 years and more. ... This is a kind of attack [on] the region," she says.

The road bridge was originally conceived more than 40 years ago as a way to connect two American and NATO air bases. Prum calls the project a Cold War relic that — like the conflict itself — needs to be scrapped.

Now Prum and some other Mosel Valley producers are turning to their wines' international fans for help. They've enlisted high-profile international wine critics Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Stuart Pigott in their fight.

The wine experts have denounced the bridge project as an abomination. Johnson called it "idiocy and a crime." A campaign called "A Bridge Too Far" just started in major U.K. supermarkets. The largest-selling German Riesling there will carry a neck-holder label urging drinkers to help stop the highway.

But the proponents are becoming more vocal as well.

Embracing The Giant Bridge

In the quiet village of Uerzig on the banks of the Mosel, winemaker Robert Eymael ducks into one of his estate's cellars. The musty cavern was built in the 12th century by Cistercian monks who were evidently diminutive and liked to make and drink wine.

Eymael is quick with a smile and wears a let's-visit-the-tasting-room sparkle. The monks were short "and fat," he quips. Like the Prum family just down the river, the Eymaels have been making world-class wine in the area for more than 200 years. German oak wine barrels the size of Volkswagens sit chained to the floor, in case they get the idea of floating away during the annual Mosel River flooding season.

Eymael has now embraced the giant bridge and roadway where others see disaster. Once opposed to it, today he says the bridge is "like a 747 on the runway about to take off, so just get out of the way."

Eymael sees the smaller towns along the Mosel, such as Uerzig, slowly dying. New families are not moving there. Gorgeous old slate homes sit empty and unsold. Fewer and fewer tourists spend the night. The big bridge, he says, will help reinvigorate the area.

"Many critics, they are sitting in London or in San Francisco or in New York and they really don't know the problems of population we have here," Eymael says.

"You know, we can die in beauty, if you like that. But we want to live. And we want to have good roads and good streets to the places where people can work," Eymael says. "We live here in the end of the world and therefore it's important for us that the world comes to us."

"I'm sure people will come and look in wonder at the bridge," he adds cheerfully, "like how people gaze at the beautiful bridges of Istanbul."

Nearly Impossible To Stop Wheels Of Bureaucracy

This seems zealously hopeful and based on little other than Eymael's natural optimism, just like his frequent assertion that 95 percent of the people there support the bridge project. There has been no opinion poll in the area.

But many in the valley, at least anecdotally, seem resigned to the project. Vintner Peter Schmidt sells his Riesling and pinot noir wines in the bustling riverside tourist town of Bernkastel-Kues.

"I don't find the bridge attractive to the eye. And I don't think we really need the bridge. Tourists have been coming to the region for the past 60 years, and their numbers are increasing every year, thank goodness. The bridge won't help that. But in Germany, once the wheels of bureaucracy start to grind, it is almost impossible to stop them," Schmidt says.

He may be right: Bulldozers have already started building the highway leading to the bridge.

One small glimmer of hope for opponents is that the federal transport minister has warned of cuts to road projects in this age of austerity. Yet he has made no mention, so far, of stopping the Mosel Valley project.

And unique in Germany to the state of Rhineland-Palatinate — where the bridge is being built — the regional transport and economy minister is also the minister of wine agriculture.

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