Tasting water is a tough job

February 22, 1999

COOLFONT, W.Va. - I suppose you could say the drippings came home to roost. Exactly 56 days after taking inexcusable liberties with the taste-test water judges of the eighth annual Berkeley Springs Festival of the Waters, there I was this weekend, sitting as one of a dozen taste-test water judges of the ninth annual Berkeley Springs Festival of the Waters.

I take a dim view of justice of any kind, but poetic is the rottenest fish in the barrel.

But I learned some things, and right off I no longer want to hear how easy newspaper columnists/water judges have it. My fellow judges and I arrived in Broccoli Springs at 11:30 Friday morning and instantly we were put to work at Tari's Cafe, where it fell on our shoulders to dispose of coconut shrimp in a marinated cucumber salad, sesame salmon with honey, ginger and orange glaze and pastry with strawberries and Grand Marnier.


This fatigued us greatly, but slave-drivers and event hosts J.W. and Jill Rone wouldn't let us rest. There was another spread during a reception at the Country Inn that night and the next night, on the brink of exhaustion, we were confronted with stuffed lobsters and tiramisu at Coolfont.

Somewhere along the line we were expected to decide which among the finest municipal, bottled and sparkling waters were the best in the world. Someone needs to tell the festival organizers that there is only so much work a human being can be expected to do.

It's confusing, because in a town born of the Revolution (witness the street names: "Independence," "Congress," "Liberty") the people in Berkeley Springs go against this history by treating you like kings.

I'll leave it to them to sort out this psychological incongruity. I had work to do.

Saturday we took a class in water tasting taught by water expert Arthur von Wiesenberger. For all I know, his real name is Shorty Pickins, but that's the name he gave us and there was no time for background checks.

Going in, my working theory was that there is no such thing as good water, only varying degrees of bad. This was partially borne out in the 1-14 ranking criteria they gave us. Only Nos. 13 and 14 mentioned the word "good." No. 12, two steps away from aquatic nirvana, was defined as "no special taste at all." On the other end was No. 1, a "terrible, strong taste; I can't stand it in my mouth." No. 2, "terrible taste; I would never drink it." No. 3, "real bad taste; I don't think I would ever drink it." No. 4 "real bad taste; I would drink it only in a serious emergency." And so on.

I was stuck on whether dying of thirst on an abandoned African camel trail in the Sahara would constitute a "serious emergency," but just then we were hustled off to the judges' platform where I was appalled to find myself seated between Sarah Theodore, executive editor of Beverage Industry Magazine and Spa Magazine's travel editor, Roger Fitzgerald. I was a clown between two experts. This was like approaching the Pearly Gates and finding your everlasting fate in the hands of St. Peter, Abraham and Goober the mechanic from "The Andy Griffith Show." I tried to act professional, but - well, you know me.

Luckily they were both very kind. They heaped praise on my choking noises and complimented me highly on my inability to sit still - support I never receive at home.

I was doing pretty good, too, on the municipal entries. I thought I was detecting differences (and amazingly, of nearly 50 entries, the second- and third-place finishers in these blind taste tests a year ago finished second and third again this year - leading you to think there's something relatively scientific about this competition).

But on the bottled water I was way over my head. They may as well have set 22 Ping-Pong balls in front of me and asked which was the roundest. I muddled through. But next year, maybe they'd just let me judge the lobsters.

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