Arthur von Wiesenberger’s graying hair was combed into small waves behind his ears. His bright yellow tie matched his gleaming gold cuff links, and his goatee was trimmed as artfully as the Wimbledon grass. With practiced, calm authority befitting his genuinely baronial name (his paternal grandpa was an Austrian aide-de-camp), von Wiesenberger looked out at the 10 men and women seated in front of him and explained the day’s mission to us.
“We’re here today to determine what tastes good in water.”
We were gathered in the most resplendent venue in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, population 613: the Parkview Garden Room of the town’s Country Inn. As von Wiesenberger spoke, hotel employees were stringing warm white LED globes along the the low-ceilinged banquet hall’s rafters, preparing for the 25th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. This is the so-called “Oscars of water,” and while the title is half facetious, there are no other serious contenders for it anywhere. Held on a Friday and Saturday each February, the event brings together dozens of water industry insiders and enthusiasts for speeches, exhibitions, free samples, and other self-described “WaterTainment™.”
Von Wiesenberger, the foremost bottled water expert on earth and author of multiple books on the subject, has served as watermaster since the event’s inception, and in the Parkview Garden Room he was attending to his most essential duty of the weekend: training the panel of judges who would soon perform a blind taste-test to choose the best waters from a field of 84.
There are other one-off water tastings held elsewhere, particularly in Europe, and there are annual industry awards that honor all varieties of food and beverage products, but no other regular event has focused solely on water for such a long time. It costs only $40 plus shipping fees to submit a product to the competition, but a gold medal at Berkeley Springs is a point of pride for any company that achieves it. That’s why, sitting on my padded conference chair and listening to my watermaster’s instruction, I felt like a fraud. Most days water is something I barely acknowledge; it’s there to be gulped, boiled, and flushed. But I needn’t have worried. Even more than an industry benchmark, the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is designed as a tourist boon, and the only prerequisite for judgeship is enthusiasm — or a byline.
Nearly all of the other panelists were fellow members of the media, selected by the promoters to ensure the greatest possible coverage. About half our group had served as judges before. Some, like Mark Kraham, news director for local NBC affiliate WHAG, had done it 10 or more times, there being only so many prominent media figures in this part of the northern Shenandoah. But as setup continued, von Wiesenberger administered a proper training, if only to ensure that we exuded the proper gravitas for the occasion.
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“You’ll be sitting over there,” he said, gesturing to two linen-covered tables under stage lights at the far end of the room, five yards away. “The pourers will come by and give you each water in the right numbered glass. Hold the glass up, take a look for any impurities, anything floating. Now bring the glass to your nose and take a deep breath — what do you smell? Maybe it’s chlorine, or plastic. Then take a sip, and keep the water in your mouth. How does it feel on the tongue? Is it harsh or soft? Fresh or bland? As you swallow it, is it refreshing — making you thirsty for more — or does it have a lingering residue? As you taste multiple glasses of water, you could wash away your natural saliva, giving a sense of dry mouth. Those crackers can help restore your saliva.”
Behind von Wiesenberger, on a small patterned-wood dance floor in front of the judges’ tables, hundreds of the competing bottles were arranged in a flowing, multilevel sculpture. It resembled a kind of reverse Atlantis, a city made entirely of water, a fun-house mirror of cartoon nature scenes on bright recyclable plastic labels and tastefully minimalist fonts on clear glass. This year’s entries included commercial and tap waters from South Korea, New Zealand, Bosnia, and Quebec, as well as domestic products ranging from Berkeley Springs’ own supply to samples from rural California. The competing brand names all sounded either parodically natural — Cedar Springs, Misty Mountain, Eldorado — or shamelessly luxurious — Selini Signature Edition Ultra Premium Quality, Antipodes, Otakiri Reserve.
Bottled water is poised to overtake soda as America’s foremost commercial drink within the next year. The most recent data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation claims that Americans drank 10.9 billion gallons of it in 2014, a 7.3% increase over 2013. While plenty of that belongs to soda company behemoths like Aquafina and Dasani, the artisanal market is growing as well, and Berkeley Springs offers an annual chance for smaller companies to garner an otherwise unattainable level of industry recognition and respect.
A thickly mustachioed vendor stood behind his taste-test rig for an in-home filtration system. Another display featured a cartoon superhero, Mr. Waterman, who implored kids to reject soda in favor of Mr. Waterman brand Natural Artesian Alkaline Water. A team from the website Water Citizen News was forever tinkering with their camcorders and struggling with the hotel’s spotty Wi-Fi; thanks to them, this was to be the first live-streamed International Water Tasting in the event’s history. By the entrance door, next to a small step-and-repeat, volunteers assembled two standing banners advertising von Wiesenberger’s own site, BottledWaterWeb. Each banner depicted an amply breasted blonde in a low-cut T-shirt underneath the slogan WATER IS SEXY. Buttons with the same message were arrayed across the long registration tables nearby.
Arthur von Wiesenberger
Pat Jarrett for BuzzFeed News
Outside, a windless snowstorm was underway, with forecasts calling for eight to 10 inches. Von Wiesenberger pointed a signet-ring-clad hand toward the window and the sheets of dense white falling just outside.
“You know what we call that in the industry?” he asked with a grin. “Future inventory.”
Pat Jarrett for BuzzFeed News
Travel Berkeley Springs, the local tourism bureau, decided in 1991 that they needed some kind of annual water festival in order to capitalize on the town’s namesake natural fountains. What started as a whim then grew, almost inadvertently, into one of the most prestigious annual events of the $360 billion water industry. And that means Berkeley Springs, all 0.34 square miles of it, became one of that industry’s most important locations, even though its claim to notoriety was created out of whole cloth, by local boosters with no connection to the business whatsoever.
For a long time the arrangement has been mutually beneficial: A fancy awards ceremony brings visitors to a tourism-dependent town and lends stature to an industry built on lifestyle enhancement. But lately water has undergone an enormous shift in the popular imagination: As a natural resource and as a product, it’s now central to the biggest debates and concerns in the modern world, affecting and reflecting everything from climate change and public health to agriculture, pollution, income inequality, and infrastructure. At the same time, people like Arthur von Wiesenberger are advocating for its status as a luxury health food.
West Virginia itself may be better known for environmental catastrophe than hydrogeological purity. Only two months before the tasting, prosecutors had finally indicted the former executives of chemical company Freedom Industries, who, in January 2014, spilled untold gallons of coal cleaner into the Elk River and left 300,000 people — one-sixth of the state population — with literal poison in their taps. Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm, partnered with the nonprofit West Virginia Rivers Coalition to release “The Freedom Industries Spill: Lessons Learned and Needed Reforms,” which chastised “big coal” as well as shortsighted, regulation-averse politicians. “Elected officials, agency heads, and members of the Legislature have made it clear,” the report stated bluntly, “that protecting human health and the environment will take a back seat to supporting lax regulation of industry.”
In response, the state legislature passed a stunningly comprehensive environmental reform package headlined by strict new regulations on 50,000 aboveground chemical storage containers, though by early March 2015, that purview had been limited to 12,000 tanks. (That’s of a piece with the current administration’s eye-poppingly antienvironmental stand; in early February, West Virginia became the first state to repeal its own existing renewable energy standard.)
On Feb. 16, a Virginia-bound CSX train carrying 109 cars of crude oil derailed outside Beckley, about four and a half hours southwest of Berkeley Springs, right on the other side of Monongahela National Forest. At least one car went into the Kanawha River. Around 10 others exploded at half-hour intervals. Mushroom plumes filled the sky, and at least one house caught fire. Two hundred people were evacuated, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared another state of emergency, this time affecting two counties.
This grim local reality wasn’t completely ignored all weekend. If Saturday, the tasting itself, is the Oscars of water, then Friday, the annual industry mastermind salon, is its low-tech TEDx event. The five speakers included this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Jack C. West, an earnest and humorless late-middle-aged man with gleaming white hair. He currently chairs the Drinking Water Research Foundation, though he is probably best known for developing the bible of water industry standards, the IBWA Model Code, named for the International Bottled Water Association, which he previously chaired.
West had come to proclaim the glories of bottled water and the perils of tap, revealing, for example, that municipal water supplies are responsible for “between 16 and 19 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness yearly,” a range that, if anything, is conservative according to the NIH. Yet while it’s true that a sterilized, FDA-approved bottle is more pristine than the decades-old pipes and faucet that carry your local water supply, the health toll of bottled water, while slim, isn’t quite zero, as West claimed. As for the prospect of a planet covered in empty Aquafina plastic, West assured us that a vast majority of these bottles are recycled, an even more tenuous assertion.
The whole Friday seminar, which lasted four hours in front of about 20 audience members, matched West’s monotone advocacy and only modulated his tone of precious-bodily-fluids terror. He was joined by the executive director of the Lloyd Magothy Water Trust, a nonprofit steward of Long Island’s aquifers, who warned that 250 million pounds of unused prescription medications are flushed down American toilets every year, filling the water supply with pharmaceutical dangers.
And then came Bob Hidell, 2013’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, who now serves as the event’s grand poo-bah. Hidell is chair and CEO of Hidell International, a consulting firm for beverage and nutritional companies, and before the tasting I’d heard tell of his legend: He could divine an underwater spring without any tools at all; his blessing on a new bottling company was a harbinger of future success. He moved through the crowd like a zeppelin and took his place at the podium.
Like West, Hidell was an older white man with the stiff composure and polar-white hair of an early-bird dinner attendee, but with his gray blazer, black turtleneck, and penchant for grand philosophical doomsaying, he more resembled a benevolent Bond villain. He delivered his marathon Friday address in front of a single slide depicting a map of the movement of human populations over millennia. He began by announcing that global warming was causing water scarcity, which in turn was causing “the beginnings of a transit of 2.4 billion people.” Referencing the recent riots and extremist attacks in England and France, Hidell said they were only the beginning. The rest of Europe is “about the see a turmoil that they will never understand.” At one point, one audience member sarcastically asked if we had any reason for optimism.
“Let me take a look at my notes,” Hidell mumbled, flipping through a legal pad that he’d barely acknowledged so far. “No. No, I’m afraid we don’t.”
The recent news would seem to prove him right. More than 800,000 people die from water-related illness every year, while 750 million people worldwide still lack access to clean water altogether. Boston survived a record snowfall that taxed their wastewater engineering, and California is suffering a record drought that threatens the entire nation’s food supply. Last year, Portland, Oregon, issued a boil-water alert after three of the city’s open-air reservoirs tested positive for E. coli. As summer begins, there’s equal cause for despair: Detroit’s water bureau continues to shut off service to the city’s poorest. Texas and Oklahoma have gone from record droughts to record floods, prompting Anheuser-Busch to temporarily halt beer production at one of its plants in order to supply the region with drinking water. In that same week, the EPA, under President Obama, announced a new Clean Water Rule that extends the agency’s regulatory powers.
Pat Jarrett for BuzzFeed News
Whether too much, too little, or too dirty, water is a painful issue for a lot of people right now. Amid all that noise, Berkeley Springs seems like a refuge. The panhandle’s population is more dense than the state average, but the surrounding mountains contain only silica, not coal. They have the Shenandoah Valley within view, not the deepest woods of the Mountain State. They have D.C. within an easy drive, not rural Kentucky. The town and the International Water Tasting exist to tell their visitors: Yes, there is still good water and good living to be found, and people who care deeply about finding it.
Hidell’s final suggestion to young people was to “find a rich girlfriend, buy land on the eastern side of Wyoming, watch the Great Plains, and make pretzels or something.”
“How about buying in Berkeley Springs?” came a woman’s voice from the rear of the room. Everyone’s head turned around to see who’d mercifully relieved the air of dread, and no surprise, it was the perpetually smiling Jeanne Mozier, who founded both Travel Berkeley Springs and the International Water Tasting and remains deeply involved in both. A laugh came over the crowd as we stood and returned to the world of sexy buttons and in-home purifiers. Even Hidell cracked a smile.
“That’s right,” he said. “Buy in Berkeley Springs.”
Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed News
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