BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.VA.- Suggesting that the country may be ready for more water sommeliers might earn you the accusation of being “all wet.”
"Sommelier" normally describes a wine expert. Yet for Martin Riese, his job as the only water sommelier in the United States is serious business. The water expert is certified by the German Water Trade Association, and as water sommelier for the Patina Group he was tasked with creating the 40-page menu for Ray’s and Stark Bar in Los Angeles.
“When we taste things, we rely on three senses: taste, sight and smell. Water is tough because you can only rely on taste. It hopefully has no color or odor,” said Riese.
Riese is one of the judges who has participated in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Now in its 26th year, the prestigious event will take place Feb. 25-28 at The Country Inn in the small town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which is known for its superior water. The water tasting draws entries from the United States and around the globe.
“More than 700 distinct waters have entered over the life of the event, coming from all over the United States and as far away as Greece, New Zealand and Korea,” said Jeanne Mozier, one of the founders.
Categories include municipal water, purified drinking water, bottled water - both still and sparkling - and packaging.
Producer Jill Rone said the competition has grown over the years, with more than 700 waters judged over four days. “When the event started, it was to draw people to Berkeley Springs as part of a winter festival. We had no idea that the event would end up being so important in the water world.”
“The impact of winning this event is extraordinary for a bottler. Several have experienced exponential growth, others closed major deals and almost all winners redesign their labels to display their winning medal,” added Mozier.
Members of the water industry also attend for the workshops and educational seminars, like this years’ titled, “Water beneath the Surface and around the Globe,” which will feature speaker Joe Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association, and other industry experts. A panel discussion on the Flint, Michigan, water emergency will be led by global water expert Henry Hidell.
The 12-member judging panel, which in the past has included a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, magazine representatives and the producer of EmeraldPlanet TV, will award points based on odor, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and aftertaste.
“Purified is the hardest to judge since it’s pretty much stripped of chemicals,” said Rone.
On Saturday, the public will join the judges in tasting the water and submit their vote for the People’s Choice Award for best packaging. “How the product looks has become ever more important as the bottled industry continues to grow,” said Mozier, adding that there are more than 600 brands of bottled water. When the event ends on Saturday evening, the public rushes forward in a frenetic yet fun mad dash towards hundreds of bottles of water that have been used for display.
Water Master Arthur von Wiesenberger, who grew up in Italy and describes himself as a “passionate hobbyist,” flies in from Santa Barbara, California, each year to share his knowledge with the waiting panel of judges. The bottled water expert experienced his first water tasting at an event held by a Florida “Friends of Water” group called "Les Amis de L’Eau."
“That event kind of gave birth to the whole concept,” said Wiesenberger, who has since written books on water and provides the public with a comprehensive “font” of information on his website called “The Bottled Water Web.” Wiesenberger calls the event the “granddaddy of water tastings,” and said he looks forward to sharing information with the judges.
“It’s an interesting education and they’ll never view water the same way again,” he said.
Special events and activities will take place in Morgan County from Feb. 25-28. To learn more, visit www.berkeleysprings.com