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High-Voltage Towers Anger Rioja Wine Industry

Producers complain that the towers are an eyesore and a threat to tourism

Chris Fleming
Posted: March 10, 2011

Wine producers in Rioja are angrily protesting an extensive network of high-voltage power lines going up across the prized Rioja Alta subzone. They complain that the power lines and towers mar the region’s rugged beauty and could ruin the budding tourism industry. They’re organizing opposition groups and appealing to the Spanish government and European Union officials.

“People here love their land and we are going to fight hard,” Jorge Muga, winemaker at Bodegas Muga and a spokesman for the opposition, told Wine Spectator. “Spain has the most vineyards in the world, Rioja has the most prestigious vineyards in Spain, and this area has the finest vineyards in Rioja. This area is part of our Spanish identity.”

The electrical project is extensive. Already, high-voltage wires stretch across 15 miles from the historic town of Laguardia through Haro to Miranda de Ebro, supported by 73 large towers. The construction of three additional lines is planned in the next two years.

Visible from the towns of Haro, Villalba, Briñas and Labastida, the completed line affects a wide swath of vineyards. Muga calculates it impacts 12,500 acres, including vines belonging to Bodegas Muga, RODA, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Ramon Bilbao, La Rioja Alta and CVNE. The planned additional lines will double that, affecting the whole valley.

“The permission to build the towers shouldn’t have been given,” said Muga. “The town hall of Haro is asking the Rioja government to put the lines underground. It’s very expensive, but it’s possible. People transport electricity in Burgundy and Tuscany and they don’t go through the landscape that feeds the people. Our economy is based on tourism. You won’t come to Spain to walk under high-voltage lines, with cables and towers everywhere.”

“Red Eléctrica has followed strictly procedural steps established by Spanish law,” said Nuria Santos de la Calle, a spokesperson for Red Eléctrica de España, one of the two utilities behind the project. “We informed the local government, municipalities and all affected parties. The autonomous region approved the line and the city council of Haro was in favor of the installation.”

The impacted wineries were surprised that the towers were built so quickly. “[Our] first reaction was disbelief because we realized that all public authorities [that reviewed] the project approved it without thinking about how this affects our spectacular scenery in which the vineyards and mountains live in perfect harmony,” said Bodegas RODA’s managing director Agustín Santolaya. “The procedure did not allow us to present specific objections.”

Last October, locals from Haro formed an association, En Defensa del Paisaje Riojano (“In Defense of The Rioja Landscape”). In recent weeks, the group has gained a growing amount of international support from winemakers and trade groups, not to mention more than 3,200 supporters on its Facebook page. Pedro Barato, president of Spain’s largest farming union, will help the group present the situation to the E.U. in Brussels.

“We don't want to fight against progress,” said Julio César López de Heredia, general manager and vineyard manager of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. “In 1890, Haro was the first city in Spain to have electric lights in the streets, and a prosperous wine industry was an important factor. Now Rioja is crossed by highways, electric lines, railroads, pipelines, etc. We can´t integrate more of these infrastructures without breaking the balance of the natural environment that gives Haro and Rioja a reason to be known in the world.”

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