I’m sitting in a suit and tie, sniffing a glass of water and trying to taste… something. Something that distinguishes this glass of water from the 40 or so other glasses of water I’ve smelled and tasted throughout the day.
Hundreds of glass bottles of water are displayed in front of me, arranged in a display you might expect at some opulent gathering of the upper-crust of society. But Mr. Richard Branson, I am not. Rather, I’m a guest judge at the 2014 International Water Tasting in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. And as the event would suggest, international water connoisseurs and businessmen and women were gathered alongside locals, watching with great interest in every sip myself and the other judges took.
There’s just one problem — It all tastes the same. Unsurprisingly, it all tastes like water. The only thing that doesn’t taste like water is the carbonated water, which was in a judging category of its own and I of course deplore it.
So why am I here again?
“Young, Beautiful And Famous”
West Virginia and I have a relationship akin to someone you knew of growing up, but never really talked to. I knew the state existed. However, my visits were generally through — not to — the state during family road trips growing up. A West Virginia University keychain I have lying around somewhere in my childhood home suggests I’ve been to Morgantown, but I haven’t the faintest recollection.
To be fair, I was also of an age and level of travel sophistication that only required a clean TGI Fridays to impress me. So it’s no surprise that many of my early travels blend together into one backseat fight with my older brother.
My interest in West Virginia rekindled (or rather, kindled) after cutting through the Mountaineer State for a Great Smokey Mountains trailhead. Rob, driver and photographer, and I stopped in Charleston on the way down to grab some eats. I recounted our brief visit and my impressions driving through the state, evidently catching the attention of locals and tourism professionals alike.
One comment came in on October 5, 2012.
“Come visit Berkeley Springs and soak in our healing waters and get a great massage after all that outdoor adventure,” her pitch began, ending with what struck me as an unusual and completely unexpected proposition. “We’d be happy to have you come be a media judge at the world’s largest water tasting competition right here in Berkeley Springs every February. Drinking our magic water (from every tap in town) keeps us all young, beautiful and famous!”
Young, beautiful and famous? Surely they’ve got the wrong guy.
I regretfully declined the invitation to judge at the 2013 festival due to prior obligations, but was told they would reach out again for 2014. Sure enough, I was invited for 2014 and I gratefully accepted.
Why accept a judging position for an event I have no experience in, you hypothetically ask for the purposes of the following explanation?
Well, I’m of the Seinfeld-mindset. In that, I’ll generally do anything for the story. And judging at the 2014 Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting was worth the story.
Welcome to the Grandmothers Collective
Melanie and I arrived on a February Friday night, just in time to watch all the “open” signs turn off. Luckily Tarie’s Café was willing to give us soups and salad. I went with tomato bisque while an increasingly hangry (hungry + angry) Melanie took down the lobster bisque. Both were sufficiently edible, followed by a Kentucky Derby Pie — basically a hot chocolate chip cookie in delicious pie form — to wash it all down.
Our server, stocky with a dark brown pony tail, and bluegrass music screamed, “You’re in West Virginia!”
Berkeley Springs Tourism was kind enough to get us a room at the Highlawn Inn, hidden off the main road atop an incredibly steep hill. Our innkeeper reminded me of what Gimli’s mother would look like if she had made an appearance in the Lord of the Rings films. Though her personality was more reminiscent of the cutesy troll dolls that dominated shelves and mantles across the country throughout the 90s. At least the personality I attributed to those dolls, which is upbeat, optimistic and always smiling. Basically The Smurfs. A very delightful person, and that’s a word I seldom use for, well, anything.
Our room looked as if it used to be the headquarters of some Grandmothers Collective. Flower prints everywhere, mainly on the sheets, wallpaper, and shower curtain around the kind of tub you see in old movies. We were warned by the innkeeper while checking in that our room is her cat’s favorite, evidenced by the tumbleweeds of dismembered fur on our sheets we would discover just in time for bed. It was a good test to make sure I’m still not allergic to cats. A test I must have passed, because I woke up the next morning.
The next morning our innkeeper was kind enough to offer some fruit and croissant before we went for a run around town. Sunny skies and 40-some degrees with a level of fresh air I’m not used to after nearly three years living in the heart of a car-dominated city was too good to pass up.
We did a quick mile around town (Melanie has been recovering from a knee thing), but saw enough to know that Berkeley Springs is as beautiful and historic as advertised, ending our run at the state park downtown. A Duck Dynasty lookalike watched us from a nearby bench as we did a few more exercises underneath a gazebo. To be fair, he probably thought we were the weird ones.
Berkeley Springs gets its celebrity from George Washington. Yep, that George Washington. The namesake of our increasingly devalued dollar. You see, President Washington enjoyed retreats to Berkeley Springs for, you guessed it, the springs! It was believed (probably still is by some) that there are healing powers in the waters. You can even hop in if you want to find out for yourself. Unfortunately, we left our swimming apparel at home.
Next we moved to the adjacent Fairfax Coffee House along a strip of old, yet well-kept buildings. Inside awaited tasty, bottomless cups of coffee with, I believe, North Carolina counter culture beans. We were happy to enjoy our caffeine fix on a couple of cozy couch chairs as locals moved in and out.
Back at the Highlawn Inn, we enjoyed brunch with some of my judging colleagues. Everything was more than sufficiently edible. Veggie egg casserole, potatoes, fruit, and blueberry scones mixed nicely in m’belly.
During brunch we couldn’t help but notice that we were with a generally older crowd. When mixed with the fact that this was also a water tasting crowd, it made for very interesting — peculiar might be the better word — atmosphere. Regulars to the water tasting were proud to share their water puns, like “I’m an aquaholic!”
If you were in my shoes, you might be thinking, “Yikes. Brutal.” But you would damn sure be in the minority.
Before throwing in the towel, we met with the director of the water tasting, who explained why Charleston’s recent water woes — and by “woes” I mean toxic, murder liquid — would have no impact on the event. Frankly, I was glad they brought it up. It was on everyone’s mind, especially those back home who questioned our going. Hell, you probably had questions yourself. “Water? West Virginia? Sounds no bueno.”
She explained something about how the continental divide separates Charleston water from Berkeley Springs water. Basically they flow in different directions. It sounded smart enough, so I bought it.
But what I couldn’t overlook was the fact that our host looked like a witch. Her tall, slender frame, frizzy black hair, black platform shoes, and black dress that stretched down to her ankles looked exactly like the Wicked Witch of the West sans green makeup.
I felt awful knowing that I couldn’t simply overlook this blatant reality. But it would be like recounting a hiking trip and leaving out your encounter with a bear. You have to mention it. But like mentioning a bear-encounter on a hiking trip, I don’t recount my witch-comparison with ill will or mean intentions. Like our innkeeper, her personality was completely contrary to her fictional counterpart. Very upbeat and excited to share all things having to do with the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Besides, aren’t witches the go-to sexy Halloween costume these days?
Come to think of it, I’m actually rather envious. At least our hosts actually look like someone. There have been more instances than I can immediately recall where someone approached me, wondering if I’m their friend Steve or Dan or whoever. It’s because I have the unfortunate distinction of looking very indistinct. In other words, bland. My blond hair, blue eyes, and paper white skin blur into an indiscriminate blob that strangers think they’ve seen before. It would be like approaching a store mannequin, inquiring if you’ve seen that mannequin before.
(Coincidentally, recent tuxedo measurements of mine line up perfectly with those of a mannequin, sealing my fate as an indiscriminate blog for eternity.)
See? It’s ultimately a compliment. I wish I looked like a witch or Gimli’s mom or just something period!
And now that my conscience is clear, let’s move on.
After receiving assurances that the water is safe, we were given a gift of post-it notes and colored tags from the water tasting’s Thai delegation. Yes, there’s a Thai delegation.
“Couldn’t this be seen as a bribe?” I wondered. But somehow, I don’t imagine gifts are as closely monitored at the water tasting as, say, Olympic figure skating.
Now with my belly full and all the color-coordinated post-it notes I could dream of, it was time to head over to The Country Inn to learn how to taste water.
How’s The Mouthfeel?
My water tasting lesson was led by one Arthur von Wiesenberg, who comes with the title of “Watermaster.” So if you’re keeping score, He-Man is the “Master of the Universe,” and Mr. von Wiesenberg is the “Watermaster.”
After explaining more than my brain could digest about the art of water tasting, we were guided to our judging tables to practice tasting. This entailed tasting four waters, using scoresheets to rate different aspects, such as clarity and taste. My favorite category was, “mouthfeel,” only because I have no Earthly idea what I was looking for. But I pictured a group of aristocrats drinking water around a fancy dinner table, praising the mouthfeel.
“Clarence, the mouthfeel on this water is perfect!”
“Yes, Clarence, brilliant mouthfeel, indeed! Bravo, sir!”
The test left me feeling bad for the contestants who had spent an unquantifiable amount of time and energy on preparing for this festival. I’m a guy who enjoys the $3 Foxmoor wines at CVS. It’s very likely I have no business judging the taste of anything.
Following the test, we were asked to go back and change into our evening attire and meet back at the aforementioned Tarie’s Café for dinner. And Holy Hell, we were given some tasty eats. It’s amazing how much better the food is when the kitchen is still open.
Back at The Country Inn, we judges all took our seats at the front table, ready to make or break some water dreams. Who would go home victorious? Soon, we would finally know.
“Let The Water Flow”
The evening launch reminded me of the opening of a Miss America pageant. At least, what little I’ve seen of pageants.
Our water maestro and director of the event engaged in cheesy banter back and forth before asking their assistants to, “Let the water flow!” This was, apparently, the water tasting version of “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
This led to more of the same from the afternoon. The purified water tasted like purified water. But I continued to sniff, stare at the glasses intently, and swirl the water around my mouth as if I knew what I was doing. However, I most assuredly had no idea what I was doing.
I worked my way through the remaining tastings quickly, trying like Hell not to publicly display my discomfort with swallowing carbonated water — the final category, of course. With my responsibilities finished, Melanie and I headed to a bar in the other room. I needed a Jameson. Neat.
Back in the tasting room, now completely filled with an excitable audience, we waited for final announcements. At this point, Arthur von Wiesenberg (man, I love saying that name), had changed into what Melanie told me was a crushed blue velvet blazer with blue velvet loafers, signing autographs — yes, signing autographs — for foreign fans.
I couldn’t help but imagine that this whole event would make for a perfect Christopher Guest mockumentary. Michael McKean would be brilliant as the water maestro. I imagine McKean playing the character like a lounge singer with a self-inflated ego, taking his adoring Thai and Korean fans back to his bedroom for orgies where he dishes out water puns during and after climax.
Seriously, Christopher. Call me.
Eventually our event director chimed back in on the microphone, asking judges not to sneak away. This made me think a bad precedent had been set by previous guest judges, splitting for booze as soon as they were done tasting water all day.
She then announced the winners. I’m sure I could find the press release specifically naming the winners, but do you really care? All I remember is that Canada did quite well.
Ultimately I’m glad we didn’t sneak away for two reasons. One, Melanie had taken a “clean water pledge” earlier on in the day. This consisted of basically signing a piece of paper, essentially saying you’re in favor of clean water. An act she really didn’t give much thought to.
Turns out, this was for a raffle. A raffle to determine who would be the face — indeed, the face — of international clean water for 2014.
“Melanie… Cruze?” they announced.
Melanie’s face turned beet red. They repeated.
“Melanie Cruze? is there a Melanie here?”
The few who had met Melanie earlier in the day began to point her out. She was, indeed, selected as the face of clean water for 2014. This event in of itself made the trip worthwhile.
Melanie went up to accept her new position, giving an impromptu speech that went much better than a high school student who was called up earlier to accept some other award. When asked how he felt winning whatever he won, he gave an utterly uninterested, “I don’t know.” Melanie easily beat that bar.
The Water Rush
With the festivities winding down, our hosts prepared for the grand finale — The Water Rush.
Remember all those bottles left out on display I mentioned earlier? Apparently every international water tasting ends with guests grabbing as many bottles as they can get their hands on. Our hosts warned parents several times that there are glass bottles and that they have broken before. Arthur advised the weak to step back, but his cautionary words did little to stop parents from sending in their kids with giant tote bags half their size.
For the sake of drama, they counted down from 10. What ensued was what you’d expect to see at Walmart on Black Friday. Except for, y’know, bottled water. I captured some footage of the melee alongside a documentarian who had been filming the event, hoping to pitch it to HBO.
Thank God we got to see that. And that’s a wrap.