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Germany's Mosel Valley has been producing fine Riesling wines since Roman times. Many local winemakers fear that tradition is now threatened by a huge bridge and roadway being built across the Mosel River.
They've launched an international campaign to stop the project. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the Mosel Bridge has its supporters, too.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Fourth-generation winemaker Katharina Prum sits in a stately living room in her family's turn-of-the-century manor house. Her family's vineyards and house hug the steep banks of the Mosel River. Oil portraits of her great-grandparents, looking stern and intense, hang on either side of a window that looks out onto wine land that was first worked by those ancestors more than 200 years ago.
Prum sees the massive bridge and roadway project as the biggest threat to the area since the great, late-19th century phylloxera insect epidemic that ravaged European vineyards.
Ms. KATHARINA PRUM (Winemaker): A very, very monstrous, big bridge which is more than 160 meters high, higher than the Cologne Cathedral, and more than a mile long. Its a monster in this valley.
WESTERVELT: The 31-year-old, who runs the winery with her father, says she's not some wine snob worried about the view. The sprawling bridge, she fears, will not only spoil the landscape some call Germany's Napa Valley, but also damage the vineyards' natural watering system: a forested area at the top of the vineyards which slowly drains water down the steep slopes, almost like someone steadily wringing out a sponge.
Ms. PRUM: There was never an attack like this one. There has been a wine culture since 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 and more years. And this is kind of an attack to the region.
WESTERVELT: The road bridge was originally conceived more than 40 years ago, as a way to connect two American and NATO air bases that are now gone. Prum calls the project a Cold War relic that needs to be scrapped, like that conflict.
Now, Prum and some other Mosel Valley producers are turning to international fans of German Rieslings for help, including several world-renowned wine critics such as Hugh Johnson. He called the bridge project, quote: 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. 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.
Mr. EYMAEL (Winemaker): These cellars are built 1177 and therefore, you see, the wall is not so high.
WESTERVELT: The monks were short?
Mr. EYMAEL: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EYMAEL: And fat.
WESTERVELT: Eymael is quick with a smile, and wears a let's-visit-the-tasting-room sparkle. Like the Prums just down the river, the Eymaels have been making world-class Rieslings here for more than 200 years. German oak wine barrels the size of Volkswagens sit chained to the cellar floor, in case they get the idea of floating away during the annual Mosel River flooding.
Mr. EYMAEL: The wintertime, they open the barrels and therefore, the wines are perfect with fish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WESTERVELT: 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 arent moving here. 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.
Mr. EYMAEL: Many critics, they - they are sitting in London or in San Francisco or in New York. They really don't know the problems of population we have here.
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. We live here in the end of the world and therefore, it's important for us that the world comes to us.
WESTERVELT: I'm sure people will come and look in wonder at the bridge, he adds cheerfully, like how people gaze at the bridges of Istanbul.
That seems zealously hopeful, and based on little other than Eymael's natural optimism - like his frequent assertion that 95 percent of the people here support the bridge project. There has been no poll.
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.
Mr. PETER SCHMIDT (Vintner): (Through translator) 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 us. But in Germany, once the wheels of bureaucracy start to grind, it is almost impossible to stop them.
WESTERVELT: Schmidt may be right. Bulldozers have already started building the highway leading to the bridge.
One small glimmer of hope for opponents is that Germany's federal transport minister has warned of cuts to road projects in this age of austerity. But hes 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.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Bernkastel-Kues.
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