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Water Tasting flowing in popularity

February 22, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Emir Miljkovic blurted something in a Slavic tongue to his boss, who turned and motioned to a young man. Seconds later, the teen brought a sample of what had been the team's international claim to fame.

It was a simple, blue plastic bottle of Oaza water.

Standing in the judging gallery at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting at the Coolfont Resort, Miljkovic explained that the gold emblem from the 1998 contest here, placed prominently on the label, was what has made them famous.

"The contest in U.S.A. is always a challenge," Miljkovic said. "It means a lot down there in eastern Europe."

Miljkovic said since they've won three times here, sales have boosted 50 percent. Now, they peddle about 2 million liters - the equivalent of 260,000 gallons - of the stuff a year

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Miljkovic's boss, Salko Bedak, had the teen bring over a photo album as well. There were pictures of the Bosnian president with Oaza. At a conference with President Clinton, there was a bottle of Oaza inches away from the prez.

In Bosnia, "we're first," Miljkovic said.

So what kind of process brings water moguls from across oceans to a small resort in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.?

Well, says Jeanne Mozier, one of the originators of the event, it basically started out as a publicity stunt.

In 1991, the bottled water industry wasn't nearly as big as it is now, and the idea was to bring some attention to Berkeley Springs's own water as well as the area itself.

Mozier, who works with Travel Berkeley Springs, the local travel board, said the event has grown beyond what anyone ever expected it to be.

It's "unbelievable. We had no idea," Mozier said. "I mean, who ever thought this would be a spectator sport?"

But it has become just that. On Saturday afternoon, during the municipal water final judging, about two dozen people milled about in the judging gallery. Twelve judges sat at two tables with 20 samples of water from municipal water supplies across the United States, and spent about 45 minutes inspecting, sniffing, swishing and swilling the samples.

Dug Hanbicky, a writer from Washington, D.C., said after living in cities her entire life, "I'm used to a pretty low quality, so these met or exceeded my expectations."

She said possibly the hardest part of the competition was, well, holding her water. She said about halfway through the first round, she felt the urge to run to the ladies' room, although she powered through.

People who had been there before said that was just the beginning. The bottled water competitions were still to come, and those are what draw the crowds. By the end of the night, the expectations were for a standing-room-only crowd, and finally a rush for the differing samples of water that were on display.

Beth Gorczyca, a writer from Charleston, W.Va., also judged the competition Saturday. She said she grew up in a small town in Ohio.

"I always thought water tasted like water," Gorczyca said. But during a training session, a sample from a city water supply in California tasted "skunky," she said.

After taking in the sights, the number of competitions and the international contingents, Gorczyca said the competition was a little overwhelming.

"I never knew it was so serious," she said.

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