Since this story was published, vignerons from Hermitage, including Michel Chapoutier, met with ITAS TIM executives on July 24 to discuss a solution to their disagreement. Options include moving both antennas to a different location or hiding the antennas from view. Wine Spectator will continue to update the story as talks continue.
Rhône winegrowers are crying foul after learning that the local mayor and the government agency charged with protecting historic monuments have given approval for the construction of a 59-foot TV antenna on the Hermitage hill. But divisions among the winemakers may be hurting their case.
“This is France’s heritage. We should protect it and keep it beautiful,” said Caroline Frey, owner of négociant Paul Jaboulet Ainé and nearly 62 acres of Hermitage. “If we let them do this, they can do it again and again.”
The Hermitage hill is a shrine for Rhône lovers. Here, where the river bends, 321 acres provide grapes for some of the most memorable wines in France. The passage of time has left soils from four geological ages—granite, limestone, rolled stones and clay, and more than 2,000 years of winemaking history.
Although the antenna would not uproot vines, and it technically would rise not in Hermitage, but in the neighboring appellation of Crozes-Hermitage, opponents argue it would present an eyesore. Located behind the chapel of Saint Christophe, it would be clearly visible from a great distance. “It’s visual pollution, and that’s enough for me,” said Jean-Louis Chave of Domaine Chave. Chave’s family has been making wine since 1481. “The first step is to stop this construction, the second is to make sure we protect the Hermitage completely.”
The antenna’s constructor, ITAS TIM, purchased 1000 square feet near an existing 32-foot antenna, also unpopular with winemakers, that was built decades ago by the French television corporation TDF. In an interview with Wine Spectator, ITAS TIM CEO Jean-Claude Duffaud, who said he has been offended by a barrage of hate mail from Rhône defenders, was low on sympathy. “I purchased the land, I own the land, and I have the necessary construction permits,” said Duffaud. "I will build the pylon." ITAS TIM has 200 pylon antennas in France, and in at least 10 cases the sites have led to lawsuits. “Unfortunately for them, [the plaintiffs] all lost,” said Duffaud.
The winegrowers are on shaky legal ground, but they hope a swell of public support might be enough to turn the tide in their favor. Frey is drawing attention to the fight in the French media and Hermitage appellation president Michel Chapoutier said he is quietly asking for help from the upper echelons of French government. “We are weak and we have to win this battle,” said Chapoutier, who is the largest single owner in Hermitage, with 84 acres, and as a négociant produces more than 580,000 cases worldwide.
But Duffaud accused the opponents of being hypocrites. “There are currently two enormous, ugly signs on that hill belonging to two winegrowers. They’re bold calling my antenna—which is needle thin—ugly,” said Duffaud.
The signs are painted on walls on the hillside, built in the 1930s to catch the eye of train passengers. They serve no structural purpose. Until now, Chapoutier and Jaboulet have refused to remove the signs, impeding efforts to classify Hermitage as a French national heritage monument. The classification process began eight years ago.
"I brought the dossier for the classification before the commission and tried to argue that the signs were part of the history of Hermitage, but the commission didn't buy it," explained Gerard Bouchet, general council for the district. "The hill was approved for classification as a national heritage monument, but the signs were not."
The delays have left Hermitage vulnerable to construction and left many winegrowers frustrated. “What’s happening now is exactly what I’d feared would happen if we didn’t firmly protect the site," said Chave.
In response to the urgency, Chapoutier has agreed to remove the wall advertisements, but Frey has balked. “The signs are part of our history," she argued. "And my priority today is to stop the construction of the antenna.”
Meanwhile, officials are scouting hilltops for an alternative spot. But the ITAS TIM antenna must be within a few feet of the TDF antenna or the televisions will not be able to pick up the new channels. The only solution is to convince TDF to move its antenna to a less controversial location. “In my opinion, I’m not the most difficult one to convince,” said Duffaud. "Persuading TDF will not be easy."