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Germany’s Venerable Mosel Wine Business on Hard Times

December 6, 1986 GMT

LEIWEN, West Germany (AP) _ High production costs, falling demand and a recent tainted wine scandal are threatening West Germany’s venerable Mosel Valley wine industry.

The vineyards stretch in hundreds of thousands of perfectly spaced rows for 90 miles from the ancient Roman city of Koblenz to the even more ancient city of Trier.

Each fall, thousands of tourists from West Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and France crowd the Mosel Valley with its neatly maintained riverfront villages set off by a backdrop of vineyards stretching up nearby hills to craggy peaks.

Mosel wines from towns such as Bernkastel, Zell and Graach are known worldwide, and the valley’s wine-growing tradition stretches back 2,000 years to the times of ancient Roman colonists.

Yet, there have been increasing problems for the wineries in the Mosel and the adjoining Saar and Ruwer river areas.

A recent report by the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate said the number of vintners there who supported themselves primarily on their wine production sank from 4,570 in 1979 to 3,755 in 1986.

″In the coming generation, in many instances we must expect winegrowers to take up part-time jobs outside the vineyards, or to give up winemaking altogether,″ the report said.

It added that that nearly one-third of the valley’s full-time winemakers had an annual incomes of less than 20,000 marks, or about $10,000 at current exchange rates. The average debt, meanwhile, was the equivalent of $80,000.

″For many of the vintners, the economic situation is very bad,″ said Robert Schulte, director of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Winegrowners Union.

Schulte said that during Austria’s tainted wine scandal last year, one of the Mosel Valley vintners was named as being involved. He noted the accusation that glycol was added to the Mosel vintner’s wine turned out to be false, but he said the incident hurt the Mosel growers.

Long-term problems also are plaguing the Mosel, where many winegrowers are demanding increased government subsidies.

″The winegrowing areas are the steepest in West Germany,″ Schulte said. ″The production costs in the Mosel are much higher than in other areas.″

Throughout the Mosel in the fall, men and women carrying heavy, grape- collection baskets on their backs work the vineyards on hills steeper than expert ski slopes. Here and there rudimentary chairlifts are used to take the pickers to the work areas.

Mosel Valley winegrowers also point to other problems.

Overall, the Mosel wines’ domestic market share dropped from 19 percent in 1982 to 12 percent so far this year.

The small wineries say they are undercut by large Mosel Valley companies that buy cheaper wines from countries such as Italy, bottle it and sell it legally as table wine.

The largest wine-growing town along the Mosel is Leiwen, 20 miles east of Trier.

Leiwen vintners talk of the difficulty of staying in business with dropping prices. They are getting around 1.8 marks a liter - 90 cents for a measure that is approximately a quart.

Many vintners estimate 2.75 marks ($1.37) per liter as the absolute minimum to break even.

″It’s really sad,″ said one wine maker, Oswald Werner.

While Leiwen, a town of 1,700 people, is suffering the same problems as the Mosel as a whole, it is also the site of a Young Vintners Organization, which hopes to improve the outlook.

The organization has been emphasizing the dry and semi-dry Rieslings and similar wines they claim are the true Mosel wines, rather than the sweeter wines that became popular in the 1970s.

″When you know the Mosel Riesling is the best and you’re growing it, then you have to be excited,″ said Werner’s 28-year-old son, Bernhard, who is one of the organization’s leaders. ″Mosel wine isn’t a mass-produced wine. It’s a specialty wine.″

Leiwen’s Young Vintners Organization has grown to about 60 members since its founding in April 1985. The members, who range in age from 20 to 35, say they have seen interest in Mosel wines picking up.

″We’d like to spread our ideas all over, and we’ve had contacts with other young vintners,″ said Werner Rosch, 31, during an interview with several members of the group who met in a restaurant to taste some of this year’s new wine.

″But remember, to get the true Mosel wine, you have to order dry or semi- dry. That’s what we say,″ Rosch said with a smile.

End Adv Weekend Editions Dec. 6-7