Long weekends give you a chance to do something special. Take, for example, the recent it-is-some-President's-birthday-so-no-trash-gets-picked-up-on- Monday weekend.
Long before the actual three-day respite hit, one local wine collector called to invite me to a dinner party he was throwing that weekend where the wines were going to be older than George Washington. Another woman called me up to invite me along on a trip that weekend to California. In the Golden State, she promised me, I could taste new varieties of fish and experiment with new varieties of sun tan oil.
I told the wine pourer and California-bound mermaid no, I could not go with them. I had promised to spend the weekend drinking water.
And so it was, on George and Abe's birthday weekend, I drank 27 glasses of water, somewhat willingly, in a two-hour period at the Winter Festival of Waters, in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., a mountain town about 100 miles northwest of Baltimore. And since, as George would way, I cannot tell a lie, I'll tell you drinking that much water is not that exciting. I couldn't just gulp the water down and get on with it, I had to evaluate each glass. I was a judge, one of 12, who somehow had been hornswoggled into "tasting" 27 glasses of water.
And when you "taste" water, you don't just swallow. You rate its appearance, its odor, its flavor, its mouthfeel, its aftertaste and, using something called the Bruvold-Pang- born, you rate it on TC scale of 1 to 14, with 1 being "get-it-outta-here" and 14 being "I want it forever."
I learned all this when I went to water-tasting school, an intensive 40-minute training session run by Arthur von Wiesenberger, a consultant to the bottled water industry, author of "H2O, the Guide to Quality Bottled Water" (Woodbridge Press, $11.95).
Arthur -- we all called him Arthur since it was easier than saying von Wiesenberger -- had flown in from Montecito, Calif., just for this event. He even brought his tuxedo. And during a session before the tasting, he patiently discussed the nuances of water with us judges. As is typical in such tastings, the 12 judges were writers and editors of nearby publications. But, atypically, the only thing the press corps drank was water.
All of us had water score cards, and Arthur explained how to keep score. When rating the appearance of water he said that clear water was good, cloudy was bad. He said that no odor was good odor and that aromas of chlorine, plastic, sulphur, chemicals, must or metal were bad.
In the flavor category, a "clean" flavor was top of the line. Any water tasting of chlorine, plastic, sulphur, chemicals, or tasted salty or musty was to be marked down. A "refreshing" mouthfeel was a plus, a heavy or stale mouthfeel was a minus. As for aftertaste, if the water quenched your thirst, that was a positive. If it left a residue, made your palate tired, generally needin' some Geritol for the tongue, that was a minus.
And so, after going to sipping school, we started working.
The 27 waters were divided into three categories. First there was the water that came in bottles, but didn't have bubbles. During the contest they were called "bottled non-carbonated" waters but before the contest they were called "still waters." And that, frankly was one of the reasons I agreed to judge. The last time I was in the Appalachian mountains and drank something "still," it was white lightning. That was a few years ago and I figured the terms had changed, but if I went to West Virginia anything in bottles associated with the word "still" would be "mountain dew." I figured wrong.
Still waters are the kind of flat uncarbonated waters often drawn from springs. The winner in this category turned out to be Sweet Springs Natural Mountain Water from Gap Mills, W.Va. Second was Tyler Mountain Water, Charleston, W.Va.; then came Sweet Springs Land Co., Sweet Springs, W.Va.; Vermont's Green Mountain Springs, Sudbury, Vt.; and Georgia Mountain Water, Marietta, Ga.
Then there are the carbonated bottled waters, or bottled waters that bubble. Perrier, the French bubbly, won this division, followed by the Apollinaris from Germany; Artesia from San Antonio, Texas; Quibell from Sweet Springs, W.Va.; and San Pellegrino from Italy.
Finally there were the waters drawn from the pipes of 11 area cities and towns, including Baltimore. The waters of Charleston, W.Va., won this title, followed by Berkeley Springs; Baltimore; Winchester, Va.; Hagerstown; Cumberland; Rockville; CoolfontResort outside Berkeley Springs; Paw Paw, W.Va.; Shepherdstown, W.Va.; and Hancock.
Most winners were calm in victory. But when Charleston won the municipal waters division, Mary Elizabeth DeVan, the city's consumer protection director, danced for joy. She began dancing when she was presented with the first place prize, a piece of sculpture, and hours later was still high-stepping at a dance in downtown Berkeley Springs sponsored by local Jaycees.
Between glasses of water judges could "cleanse their palates" with tiny crackers. One judge, Colleen Anderson, a free-lance food writer from Charleston, was just a slip of a girl. But she was on those crackers like chicken on a June bug.
My palate was not the body part I was worried about. Before I sat down to drink 27 glasses of water I counted how many steps it was -- 15 -- to the nearest "facility." By the end of the evening, I and fellow judge Lynn Seldon, a magazine writer from Richmond, were competing for best time to the men's room.
What I learned from drinking all this water on a three-day weekend:
I learned if you stare long enough at the contents of 27 glasses of water you will eventually see something. I did see something, it looked like little crescent moons, floating in No. 25. But when I looked in No. 26, I saw the face of my old high school chemistry teacher.
I learned that bottled waters have become a very big, very serious business. Many people are drinking bottled waters because the waters have no calories, and because drinking water purges toxins from the body, making them look good. And in California they drink it because all the other water in the state, from rivers and lakes, is drying up.
And late that night after the judging, I learned that even after tasting water 27 ways to Sunday, I prefer mine mixed with malt, grain, yeast and hops. It is called beer.