New York Times
August 30, 1998
A few weeks ago I was flying toward the
spa towns of San Pellegrino, in northern Italy, and Evian, in France near the
Swiss border. A good deal of my grocery budget goes to water bottled in both
these places. I buy them because I prefer them to my Boston tap water. Many of
my friends buy bottled water because they are worried about the healthfulness of
their tap water. I am not, but I like the taste of the stuff, which is better
than the chemical tang of my chlorinated tap water. Still, I suspected I was
missing something. I was in search of the Great Sip, the source that would spoil
me for anything I could find at my 7-Eleven.
Idly, I examined the foil label that sealed the cup of water sitting in the coffee cup of the Swissair economy-class dinner. It was a brand I didn't know, Glacier Valley. There was a picture of a snow-covered mountain behind fir trees and perhaps a stream. What riveted me was the address: not Switzerland, not Italy, not France, but Ellington, Conn.
I grew up in Ellington. I had been there three days before, to attend the funeral of my 97-year-old step-grandfather, whose father had a farm alongside two of my great-grandfathers near the small Connecticut River valley town. Lush tobacco farmland was a part of my childhood landscape, and burbling brooks, too -- but not many fir trees, and no snow-covered mountains. I asked my brother, a New York City gastroenterologist, which water sources he remembered other than Shenipsit Lake, a local reservoir. He responded in an ominous tone, thinking of the maladies his patients frequently reported, "The cow pond at Moser Farms."
Moser Farms sounded right -- a dairy made so successful by the enterprise of the families (Swiss, as it happened) of some of our Ellington schoolmates that it has gone national and renamed itself Country Pure Foods. Upon my return from Europe, a woman in customer service told me that the company indeed supplies little cups of water to more than half the airlines that fly out of the country. "A lot of people from Ellington call us," she said. "They don't realize what we're doing here until they travel." When I asked where the water came from, the woman did not mention a cow pond. "You mean the spring out back?" she asked. The bore hole to pump water out of the spring, I learned, is attached to the yellow-brick barn we used to pass on our way to school, which instead of cows now houses spare parts for bottling equipment.
Everyone seems to be discovering a backyard spring and piping it into a bottle these days. In the past 10 years, sales of bottled water in the United States have increased 144 percent -- more than any other sector of the beverage market -- and annual per-capita consumption has more than doubled, from 5 to 11 gallons. Water has acquired a high-tech glamour for investors, who are amassing land holdings for the value of their aquifers; processing, filtering, and water-transport businesses are growing fast. The United States is the world's largest market for imported water. Water bars in Boston and New York and Los Angeles, often inside health clubs or trendy home-furnishing stores, display bottles from places like Italy, France, Sweden, Wales and Fiji as if they were single-malt Scotch, and charge laughable prices for something that can be gotten out of a faucet.
How do they get away with it? Why do we feel the sudden need to pay money for what has always been free? How is it that the plastic bottle with its pacifier-like nipple has become our latest security blanket? Have we been taken in by press-induced paranoia or merely seduced by fashion? Will we really drink any water that comes in a bottle -- even if it might be nothing more than municipal tap water, fancily filtered and reassuringly labeled as "purified drinking water"? Is water connoisseurship just wine snobbery without the color and the calories? Or does the source really affect how water tastes and even how it makes us feel?
I wanted to find out, and to answer a number of other watery puzzles, which is why I was on the plane. The water in the little cup tasted familiar -- all too familiar. I was in search of something better.
Who Started This Water Mania?
Not our parents. Tap water was free, or next to free, it was fluoridated to build strong teeth and its safety was simply not in question. New Yorkers, of course, had it best of all, with a pure-tasting, refreshing tap water that was the envy of the country. When Manhattan waiters began to ask which brand of bottled water to bring, the only logical reply was an indignant "New York tap, please!" In only a few years, though, tap water has gone from an automatic given to a suspect second choice.
Brand-name water first became a sign of cosmopolitan, teetotaling chic in the mid-70's, when Perrier advertised heavily and made fizzy designer water a socially acceptable alternative order at bars and restaurants -- not to mention one with a high profit margin. All-night discogoers detoxed with daylight water cures. As drugs of choice moved to targeted, in-and-out highs, water seemed a cleaner, more appropriate accompaniment than alcohol to, say, Ecstasy.
Then the gym replaced the disco, and water is the only cool drink to carry at the gym (sports drinks are a bit too phys. ed.). The culture of the body has long been replacing the culture of the soul, as the historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has pointed out in discussing our obsession with food; people insist on allowing only the best substances to enter their bodies, and lately "best" means "purest." Alpine landscapes on water bottles look very pure. Drinking large quantities of water is seen not just as a way to maintain health -- at least eight glasses a day, we are constantly told -- but as a way to curb appetite. Models began toting plastic water bottles to photo shoots, and it was a short step from the studio to the street.
The advent of polyethylene terephthalate -- lightweight, crystal-clear, flexible -- cannot be underestimated in explaining the huge rise in sales. PET has turned bottled water into a plausible tap-water replacement: no need for a cumbersome home cooler, and empties can easily be compacted by hand -- a neat trick, known by seemingly every European, that can come as a surprise to the uninitiated. I already knew the two-handed Evian crush, illustrated on the label, which requires some force and a stable surface. But on my European rounds I learned a more elegant technique from two men who showed me around the Sangemini plant, in Umbria, which bottles a water that Italians revere for its healthful properties. As the two men were smoking after lunch in the company cafeteria (this was Europe, after all, where even runners smoke), one of them lifted an empty bottle off the table, folded the bottom into the center and rolled up the flattened bottle like a toothpaste tube, capping it so air would not get back in and unfold the bottle. "I don't know why people make such a big deal out of it," he said with a modest shrug. I now immodestly demonstrate his method every chance I get.
The greatest current growth is in "convenience sizes" -- those trim bottles, ridged or otherwise decoratively molded, that seem de rigueur for every gym -- and conference attendee and subway rider. The first ripples of this tidal wave may have been fashion and health consciousness, and the sheer ease of carrying a little bottle rather than wondering where the next drinking fountain would turn up. Now the question is whether the water in those fountains traveled through rusty pipes or a Giardia-infested stream. What began in fashion has crested on fear.
What's Wrong With Tap Water, Anyway?
Very little, except taste. Yet water quality has become to the late 1990's what air quality was to the 1960's -- where environment meets personal health in a way that provokes alarm. The difference is that now people think they can buy safety in a tightly capped bottle.
There hasn't been a big tap-water scare in five years, but the bleak news of 1993 seems to have permanently clouded the country's trust in the 170,000 public water supplies. In the space of five months, both New York City and Washington issued temporary warnings to boil tap water in order to kill E. coli and cryptosporidium, respectively; in Milwaukee, at least 69 people died and more than 400,000 were sickened by cryptosporidium in the water. Environmentalists had long been concerned about pollution from pesticides, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, along with lead and copper from old pipes. Now the danger was potentially days, not decades, away. Millions of Americans began to question something they never wanted to see in doubt.
Bottled-water companies may be careful not to inflame these worries, but they aren't shy about exploiting them. Models in ads are sleek and fit, clearly untroubled by lead or arsenic. Forests and snow-capped mountains are at a safe remove from oil-leaking factories and carbon-spouting cars. Commercials for Poland Spring, the best-selling water in America, humorously emphasize how carefully protected the source is, to convey the idea that protection means safety. Water is presumably transported in shiny new pipes instead of rusty old ones, although just how it gets from the idyllic landscape into the bottle is rarely hinted at. The foil cover of my airplane cup of Glacier Valley did not show the tractor trailers parked in the big lot behind the bore hole at the corner of Route 83 and Lower Butcher Road.
It is easy to forget that the building of America's muncipal water system was one of history's public-health triumphs. Barely more than a century ago, impure drinking water caused massive outbreaks of cholera (1 of 20 Chicago residents died in the 1854 cholera epidemic); huge sections of cities around the world were razed and rebuilt to replace contaminated water transport systems. The search for fresh water literally drew the map of the civilized world. At the turn of the century, the creation of the reservoir system to supply New York City determined the development of much of the state. Safe, plentiful water on demand is a very recent assumption. Should people be questioning it again so soon?
The Environmental Protection Agency staunchly maintains that they should not. Two years ago, the E.P.A. strengthened the Safe Drinking Water Act, which catalogs potential contaminants, and in November, enforceable limits will be placed on seven more substances, mostly to address public concern over the byproducts of chlorine and other disinfectants. "Every American should be confident that the water coming from their tap is safe and clean to drink," Carol Browner, the E.P.A. Administrator, said in a statement prepared for this article, "and is regularly tested to insure that it meets tough health standards. We want the public to understand that standards set for municipal drinking water supplies are mandatory, and are monitored and tested more often than for bottled water."
Her careful wording hints at the open antagonism people who work with municipal water feel toward bottlers. They are frustrated that every flaw in tap water shows, from a water-main break that makes tap water look muddy for a few hours to the rust that stains people's sinks -- even though the iron could well be from a basement hot-water tank or home water pipes. The bottled-water industry, meanwhile, though it is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, has been largely self-regulated for years, setting its own safety controls and requiring members to submit to unannounced annual checks. The F.D.A.'s zeal in monitoring the industry has come in for criticism -- F.D.A. officials publicly state that they consider bottled water a "low-risk" industry, especially compared with foods like meat and poultry -- and people in the tap-water camp do not miss a chance to talk about possible risks. "There's nothing magic about putting water in a bottle," says Richard Karlin, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Assocation Research Foundation. "The source may be great, but you don't know that they kept everything clean."
The many public-water people I spoke with reminded me that in the United States, tap water overall is remarkably safe. Still, recent surveys by the General Accounting Office have found monitoring and enforcement of water safety to be lax and negligent. Big cities, including New York, have found ways to get around E.P.A. rules -- particularly with regard to the filtration of water, which is prohibitively expensive but the most common way to eliminate cryptosporidium, Giardia, and other viral and bacterial pathogens not susceptible to chlorine. Another advantage of filtration is that less chlorine can be used, meaning less swimming-pool flavor in tap water. The E.P.A. is well aware that people are turning to bottled water not only because they're scared of their tap water but because they dislike its taste.
As for home-filtration systems, municipal-water officials stress that no one should buy one before sending a sample of tap water to a laboratory (NSF International, at 1-800-NSF-MARK, runs two testing labs, and its Web site gives addresses). Test results show the presence of any potentially hazardous chemicals or excess minerals, and suggest whether you should buy a special filter; most filters screen out chlorine, lead and other minerals. Micron-sized and other expensive filters eliminate pathogens but require careful and frequent maintenance. The only good effect that carbon filters have on taste is to eliminate chlorine, which doesn't require a filter, anyway -- most of the chlorine will evaporate if you leave a pitcher of water exposed to air for a few hours; the effect will be the same even for a water bottle left in the refrigerator (open or capped, with some headroom). Reverse-osmosis filters, pushed by fear-mongering door-to-door salesmen, remove most of the minerals in water, rendering it perfectly tasteless.
Tasteless water might reassure worried American consumers, who don'twant any flavor in water. Europeans are different. They want to know just where their water comes from, not only to be sure it is safe but so they'll know how it will taste and what it will do for their health.
What's in the Water in Europe?
Italy and France are the world's leading exporters of bottled water. Yet in those countries, water is bottled in an untreated state shocking to Americans who assume that no water is safe without some form of disinfection. The assumption is logical, given that three-quarters of all American tap water has historically been "surface water" from lakes, rivers and streams, which is subject to bacterial, viral and parasitic contamination. "Ground water" from protected underground sources does not come into contact with animals or people, and remains free of pathogens as long as it travels in clean conduits. All Italian and French bottled water, and most municipal water too, comes from underground sources; "cryptosporidium" has not entered the public vocabulary.
"Luckily, we have quite an efficient natural filter," Donatella Cursi, a chemist who is in charge of quality control for Panna water, pointed out when I visited that company's source and factory, in the hills of northern Tuscany. She meant the layers of rock, gravel and geological sand through which rainwater and melted snow pass, shedding chemical and microbial impurities and acquiring the traces of minerals that give water its flavor and character -- its "fingerprint." Panna, Evian and other bottlers brag about the number of years it takes for their source to "recharge," as if the longer the water spent traveling through rock and sand, the cleaner it would be. In fact, one or two years of underground travel cleanses water unless manmade pollutants have seeped into the aquifer.
The European Community requires mineral water to be free of specified chemical and microbiological impurities; it must be bottled at the source, and it cannot be filtered or treated in any way. The F.D.A. also has a standard for mineral water, but it hardly matters -- I could find no American bottler that markets mineral water, even if its product fits the F.D.A. definition.
What appeals to Americans is "spring" water, a word that sounds fresh and pure. Spring water, according to the F.D.A., must originate underground and flow naturally to the surface. This reveals nothing about its fingerprint and little about its purity -- a striking deficiency of most of the F.D.A.'s categories of bottled water, which refer chiefly to how the water is taken out of the ground. Spring water is in any case almost always pumped out from a bore hole, a practice the F.D.A. allows; this insures a steady flow of water not subject to microbial contamination, as a spring-fed stream or lake is. "Spring" water is largely interchangeable with "artesian" and "well" water, two other terms defined by the F.D.A. that sometimes appear on labels as if they mean something special -- something besides the mundane fact that the water came out of the ground.
Like Evian and most European mineral waters, Panna qualifies as a spring water, because the water really does comes out of a rock. Trying to catch it in the act, though, could get you arrested. Water-collection areas are located behind locked metal doors, off limits to all but a few workers. During my visit to Panna, I kept asking if I could get behind one of those doors. My guide would quickly hustle me away to the nearly sterile room where the water is squirted into bottles on a big carousel, or bring me up to the microbiology lab to tell me how many times an hour the water is checked. .
The constant lab checks are not for show, however. European mineral-water bottlers work without safety nets -- without any of the filters and disinfectants used by the American water industry. European bottlers check their water dozens or hundreds of times a day for the presence of harmful bacteria or other pathogens, and must send daily samples to outside laboratories to confirm the results. A technician at the bottling plant for Uliveto, an Italian mineral water, told me that a full 15 percent of Uliveto's comparatively high price is for these lab tests.
At each European factory, I was told that production lines were halted at the hint of a problem, and entire lots of water might be discarded. "Does that mean you find contaminated samples?" I asked. My question usually met awkward silence. Clearly, accidents happen: Workers using cleaning products sometimes come into contact with the water; simply touching a piece of bottling equipment over which water flows could create a large problem. I elicited no tales, though. No one wants another public-relations crisis like the one Perrier went through in 1990, when traces of benzene entered the water, due to a filter failure, forcing the company to recall 160 million bottles.
American bottlers perform their own safety checks, but the need is less urgent. Their trade organization's code requires them to filter and then disinfect water by ozonation, which kills microbes including cryptosporidium, and ultraviolet light, which is effective against molds and certain viruses. These treatments retain most minerals and do not add flavor, as chlorine does. But they are unnecessary for scrupulously handled ground water -- and they render water inert.
In Europe, mineral water is a living thing. People care about its freshness, and store it in a cool place away from light (given enough time and light, unsightly but generally harmless microalgae can grow in untreated water). In Italy and France, access to living water is guaranteed. Italian companies lease the right to bottle water from the state, which requires them to provide taps where anyone may fill bottles; France requires the same thing for bottlers of water it has declared "of public interest." The Source Cachat mentioned on every Evian label is a public fountain -- a modest and pretty affair in the center of town where people flock with empty bottles, some already bearing the Evian label. In Sangemini, a town north of Rome known for its sweet-tasting, high-mineral water, a version of the afternoon passeggiata is the trip to the plant to fill as many bottles as possible. Between five and seven in the evening, the line in front of the taps is three deep.
Is All This Water Good for Us?
If a water bottle has become part of America's security system, in Europe it is part of the medicine cabinet. Pharmacies still stock bottles of special mineral waters behind the counter. In one of the wonderful old pharmacies lined with wood-and-glass cabinets that seem a part of every Italian village, a pharmacist recited from memory a list of waters and their properties. I asked how she could remember all that information, and she replied indignantly, "I had to take an exam in water to get my degree."
Before a water in Italy or France may be called mineral, the bottler must prove its health-promoting qualities with medical studies conducted by universities or laboratories. While some mineral waters are thought to improve circulation or treat liver maladies, the most common health claim is for kidney disease -- historically the chief reason to drink mineral waters. Pope Boniface VIII and Michelangelo both swore by the ability of Fiuggi, a low-mineral (and very pleasant-tasting) water in the volcanic area southeast of Rome, to relieve kidney stones.
Any health claims on European labels appear in only-if-you-believe-this terms. The F.D.A. forbids any such claims on labels in the United States. Medical education in this country turned its back on both natural and homeopathic medicine a hundred years ago, in favor of the scientific method. Americans may be turning back to natural medicine in large numbers, but American doctors are not sending kidney-stone patients to spas courtesy of the local H.M.O. Dr. Gary Curhan, a kidney specialist in Boston, told me that he knows of no evidence that one water can encourage the elimination of kidney stones more than another. As for the long scientific bibliographies that mineral-water bottlers offer -- not to mention endorsements from popes and Michelangelo -- Curhan said evenly, "The placebo effect is very strong."
Why Does Some Water Taste So Good?
This might be the unanswerable question. Evian has a milky sweetness and a heaviness on the tongue, or "mouth feel," that I find essential; Panna, Vittel and a new South Seas water, Fiji, have that sweetness too. The water experts in Europe I asked about mouth feel replied with, at best, baffled generalities about the subjectivity of taste. "Attention! " Dr. Pascale Monnerot, the communications director at Evian, cried when I asked her why Evian tastes milky. "I do not like milk."
A label will be of little guidance, even a European label, which looks something like the periodic table, with milligram counts of many mysterious minerals appearing in tiny type. A water high in mineral salts does not necessarily mean that it will taste salty: only sodium chloride, table salt, tastes truly salty. Mineral salts do help retain carbon dioxide, however. They bind with it and make a water that has smaller bubbles, is less acid to the taste and is easier to digest. This is why San Pellegrino, a water relatively high in minerals that doesn't taste very good flat (it is carbonated at the bottling plant), has finer bubbles and is less gassy than most soda water.
I did narrow down the components of good water. A relatively high proportion of bicarbonates, calcium and magnesium seem to account for the rainwater roundness I love -- the quality that made a 78-year-old Roman grandmother I presented with a sample of the day's bottling at Panna tell me she hadn't tasted water like that since the rain barrels of her youth. Calcium and magnesium are the minerals that make water "hard"; they may be bad for scaly buildup in laundry and coffee machines, but they're good for flavor and mouth feel.
No law prevents American bottlers from copying the list of minerals listed on a bottle of European water, but few of them bother to try. Arthur von Wiesenberger, the author of several books and a pamphlet called "The Taste of Water," written as a guide to conduct tastings, did tell me that one large California bottler purifies tap water and then adds a generous amount of bicarbonates, calcium, and magnesium to give it a pleasing flavor -- true designer water.
Still, no one who has worked with mineral waters thinks that a particular water can be duplicated in a test tube. One European technician plausibly suggested that the key missing element might be each water's naturally occuring microflora, which can't be ordered from a catalogue. Donatella Cursi, at Panna, said that for years she and her colleagues have tried to analyze the flavor of Panna water, without success. "I say that with displeasure, because I'm a chemist," she told me. "But that's the charm and fascination of acqua viva. I've resigned myself to the singularity of life."
Will People Buy Anything Clear in a Bottle?
Apparently. Most American consumers seem unconcerned with taste, let alone whether water is alive or dead. All they want to know is that their water is safe, portable and wet. Combine this attitude with the F.D.A.'s confusing standards of identity for bottled water, and you might well come up with Aquafina.
"Purity Guaranteed" and "purified drinking water" appear prominently on Aquafina's blue label, which shows an abstract design suggesting a mountain sunrise; the copy boasts of "crisp, refreshing taste" and "our state of the art reverse osmosis purification system." On the bottle that I bought Boston, tiny lettering on the cap said "bottled at the source" but named neither the bottler nor the source. It did, though, give an 800 number.
When I dialed the number, I reached Pepsi-Cola. I thought it was a wrong number, but I checked the very tiny print again. Recorded menu options offered information only about Pepsi-Cola soft drinks and instructed callers with other questions to try back during business hours.
The next afternoon, a customer-service representative told me that Pepsi indeed bottles and distributes Aquafina. The "source," she said, is either a municipal-water system or a well, but she did not know which of the two my bottle came from. I would have to call my local bottler to find out, and to ask some of my questions about how the water was processed; but, she added, these details "might be considered confidential." After asking my zip code, she gave me the number of a bottler in a nearby state. The jovial man who answered said he had no idea where the water in my bottle came from. He suggested that I call the 800 number.
Reverse osmosis, the process of which the Aquafina label boasts, removes not only potential contaminants but most of the minerals. It rubs away the water's fingerprint. Think of the dead, flat flavor of distilled water, which like "deionized" or "purified" water (both terms defined by the F.D.A.) has also had its minerals removed, although distilled water is boiled and Aquafina is not. I asked Larry Jabbonski, a Pepsi spokesman to whom the woman at the 800 number referred me when I called back, whether the company added back minerals for flavor. This was a new idea to him. "We're talking about almost an absence of taste," he said several times during our conversation, as if that were an asset. He could not say offhand how much Aquafina comes from municipal sources and how much from wells. Instead, he emphasized the expensive filters and treatments Pepsi uses to purify the water.
This is one way that soft-drink companies can justify asking consumers to pay more for a bottle of tap water than they do for a bottle of soda, which also usually starts with tap water but, after all, has some syrup. sentence TKTK here re profit margin on bottled water, preferably compared to soda. Another extra expense of bottled water is source protection -- that is, if the source is not a municipal tap.
Then Jabbonski turned the tables. "Do you agree that all water is natural?" he asked. "That's pivotal."
Interesting question. Is denatured water "natural?" Little wonder that despite years of pressure from food growers and other packagers who want to call their products "natural," the F.D.A. has refused to provide a restrictive definition.
In fact, a good deal of the bottled water sold in this country is nothing more than treated tap water, most of it packaged as "drinking water" in those translucent milk jugs or the five-gallon bottles that sit on top of office or home coolers. The F.D.A. has also dodged defining "drinking water," saying that for practical purposes it means the same thing as "bottled water." A bottler can easily avoid stating that the source is municipal. (As it turned out, 9 of Aquafina's 11 sources are municipal sources.) All a company has to do is treat water so that it fits an F.D.A. standard of identity like "reverse osmosis" of "deionized." Strip the water of all its identifying characteristics, in other words, and there's no point in saying where it came from. In Aquafina's case, the use of reverse osmosis allows Pepsi-Cola to call the water "purified."
As for the whitish squiggle on Aquafina's label suggesting a mountain, the preamble to the F.D.A.'s 1995 ruling on bottled-water categories states, "F.D.A. agrees that the use of certain graphics on a label of bottled water may be misleading to consumers if the source of the water is different than the source depicted or implied." Every Aquafina bottle sold across the land shows the same graphic, whether the source is a well or a municipal reservoir.
Even more deceptive, in my opinion although not in the F.D.A.'s, is the freedom to market the water of several springs under the same brand name, as long as each water meets the F.D.A. definition of spring water. To someone who looks to water to provide a sense of place and a unique fingerprint, this is scandalous -- like the Tuscans who after the 1983 olive freeze sold Tunisian and Spanish olive oils in bottles with their own fancy labels. It was extra-virgin olive oil and it was bottled in high-rent Tuscany, and that was all the European Community needed to know.
Recently, I was startled by how much I liked a bottle of Crystal Geyser, a water I bought in Boston that is put out by a California company. It compared favorably with Vittel, the French water I prize -- soft and rich in the mouth, with a gentle sweet aftertaste. This clashed with my memory of drinking Crystal Geyser in its home state, where I found it harsh and overly mineralized. A call to the company revealed why: The protected Blue Ridge Mountain source described at admirable length on my Boston bottle is marketed only on the East Coast. (The California bottle had come from tktktktktktk.)
Shipping costs are the main obstacle to a company that wants to establish a national brand of water. This obstacle has worked in favor of small local bottlers and thus in favor of preserving the kind of regionalism that food conglomerates have all but destroyed. But big companies are now moving to take over water as well: Already the Perrier Group, Poland Spring's parent, is selling water from several springs under its Ice Mountain label. Naya, a spring water distributed by Coca-Cola Enterprises, comes from two different Canadian springs. (Don't look for "Coca-Cola" on the label, though, just as you won't find "Pepsi-Cola" on Aquafina.) The Danone Group, parent company of Evian, Badoit and other premium-priced waters, has launched a mid-priced spring water under its best-known brand name, Dannon; the water comes from one of two springs.
I find this freedom of trade depressing. It makes me wonder if I will ever find a Great Sip here, or whether I'll be able to find out where it came from if I do. But I'll always have Panna.
Can One Drink Change Your Life?
I did not find greatness in my own backyard, although I hoped I would. After my Swissair discovery, I visited Roger Moser, the 53-year-old former farmer who directs the Country Pure plant, down the road from my father's house. After ascertaining that I was Dr. Kummer's son, he asked affably, "So what is it you call yourself? A . . .journalist?" Moser showed me the modest bottling line where my airplane cup was filled, and the bore hole beside the familiar barn. The spring water, he explained, was probably similar to the tap water of my childhood, which came from a spring-fed reservoir up the hill, although of course Glacier Valley water was micron-filtered and ozonated. (Moser couldn't remember who came up with the name, but he did remember that everyone thought it sounded nice.) I tried the water again. It tasted like home.
But home isn't good enough anymore, now that I have been to the source of a water I love. I had always assumed that this was was named for its mouth-filling quality and rich texture: panna means "cream" in Italian. But Panna is the name of a real place, a gorgeous and -- given its location, an hour's drive from Florence -- amazingly unspoiled place in the rolling green hills of Mugello, in northern Tuscany. Since 1564, the area has been protected from all development, first as a Medici hunting reserve and now as a 3,000-square acre property under the watchfulness of the San Pellegrino group.
I spent hours begging Marco Aiazzi, the lifelong water man who directs the plant, to let me see the water come out of the rock. Finally, Aiazzi tracked down his colleague and Vasco Giuliani, a rugged man who oversees the property, on Giuliani's cell phone (Italians talk even from room to room on cell phones). We piled into an old Land Rover and traveled up several rutted, unpaved roads through dense woods.
At last, we reached a low iron gate, chained shut, as if to a secret garden. Giuliani unlocked it, and we walked a ways up a dirt path to a green metal door set into the hillside. Aiazzi switched on a light. The floor and three walls were concrete, but the far wall was living rock, and in the middle of it I saw a thick glass panel surrounded by bolts. It was fogged and covered with beads of water. Behind the panel, I could make out several holes in the porous, craggy rock, where water was dripping into small concrete tubs, the "catchment pools." Peering through the dark, wet glass, I felt I was viewing the holy of holies.
I hadn't yet penetrated it, though. The next stop was a short way downhill in the Land Rover, following the path of the underground pipe that led from the catchment pools to another locked chamber, this one holding four small cylindrical stainless-steel tanks where water is held before traveling by gravity to the plant. Four taps ran continuously at chest level beside each tank. "Who has a glass?" I asked when the men unlocked the brightly lit chamber. Here was, after all, why I had got on a plane (this one Alitalia, and the water was San Pellegrino) in the first place: to taste water at the source. The two men looked at each other and said nothing. Barely waiting for their assent, I cupped my hands under one of the streams and started drinking. Once I began, I had no desire to stop. The water was of an almost mythical sweet softness.
Later, at the factory, Donatella Cursi, the lab director, lost her smiling composure when I described my long draught. "Of course there are no glasses," she said briskly. "We don't want anyone drinking. Even I've never let myself taste that water. Those taps are for the state inspectors, and us, to test the water at the source -- that's as close as anyone gets."
I did not regret my audacity. I had tasted nirvana. Now that I know it exists, I intend to find it again, this time closer to home -- even if not quite as close as down the hill from where I grew up.