By Mary Wade Burnside
The Exponent Telegram
BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — Next year for the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting’s 25th anniversary, organizers plan to put on a “big splash” — no pun intended — said water master Arthur von Wiesenberger.
But coming on the heels of the tainted water crisis in nine Southern West Virginia counties last month, including Kanawha County, home of the state capital of Charleston, this year’s event, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the Country Inn in Berkeley Springs, should prove to be pretty interesting, too.
“The Charleston situation brought a lot of focus to water as a subject,” said the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based von Wiesenberger, who, early in the competition, brought water from the Beverly Hills tap of family friend Kirk Douglas to be judged in the contest in an effort to draw attention to the event.
“Ben Franklin said, ‘You only know the worth of water until the well is dry.’ We only look at water when there is a disaster and then the substance that comes out of the tap becomes suspect.”
That’s not entirely true: 12 judges have been looking at water — tap, bottled, purified and sparkling — as part of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting since the event began in 1991.
The event is part of the Winter Festival of Waters, established to attract business to the Eastern Panhandle spa town — which, tourism officials like to point out, has three times as many massage therapists than lawyers — during snowy months. In fact, both the town’s given name and incorporated title, Bath, hint at the soothing spring waters that have been utilized since the times of George Washington, an early visitor.
But, as von Wiesenberger noted, in those instances, the judges, generally members of the media or tourist industry that he coaches, look for attributes surrounding the look, taste, aroma and feel of the water.
“What makes water or gives water a more desirable attribute, than, say, other types is first of all an absence of certain things,” von Wiesenberger said.
That includes a lack of taste and aroma — “one doesn’t want to smell anything” — which in municipal water could be chlorine or algae.
That is not the case for the water in the nine southern counties, which was tainted with a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol when it leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9, affecting 300,000 water customers.
Instead of the lack of aroma touted by von Wiesenberger, the water had — and according to some water customers, still retains — an odor of licorice that continues to make them reluctant to use the liquid for drinking or cooking.
Immediately upon hearing of the crisis, water tasting co-founder Jeanne Mozier, the vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs, knew this could affect the event, which has international participants, as well as the caché to give winners the ability to sell their water to be bottled under other business’s labels.
“The first thing that occurred to me was, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to get out in front of this,’” Mozier said. “It was obvious what was going to happen. Nobody is saying it’s Charleston water. It’s West Virginia water…”