In affluent Rockville, where the denizens savor fine wines and Perrier, even the tap water has a certain brash insouciance.
Municipal water in the Montgomery County community was judged the best in the state yesterday during a tasting sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Maryland Drinking Water Challenge was staged in the marble-clad lobby of Baltimore's Abel Wohlman Building.
About 100 curious office workers and citizens gathered shortly before noon to watch a panel of three judges sip glass after glass.
A collection of jugs and jars contained the entries from 11 public water systems that supply 80 percent of the state's population.
Rockville scored 80 out of a possible 90 points, beating the cities of Baltimore, Annapolis, Hagerstown, Bowie, Cumberland, Salisbury and Frederick.
Competitors also included Anne Arundel and Harford counties and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
EPA officials declined to disclose the rankings of the also-rans. .. "We promised the other systems anonymity" to avoid bad publicity for the losers, said Jeff Haas, an official with the EPA's regional headquarters in Philadelphia.
Agency officials, though, did leak the fact that the worst glass of water scored a palatable but unexciting 63.
Rockville's water, the judges ruled, came closest to the EPA's definition of flawless -- colorless, transparent, odorless and neither sweet nor sour, bitter nor salty.
A grinning Ted Davis, Rockville's water plant superintendent, gripped his winner's plaque and called the victory "a complete surprise." Two years ago, Rockville entered a similar competition in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., he said, and its water came in 14th out of 16 entries.
"We got a lot of bad PR" as a result, he recalled.
Asked to explain the stunning comeback, Mr. Davis shrugged. "Our water tasted good," he said. "Other than that, it's hard to say why. Probably, it's the fact that since the last time we entered the contest we replaced the filter medium with a different mixture."
The filter medium, he explained, is a blend of sand, charcoal and other minerals used to remove impurities.
Among municipal water systems, Rockville's is something of a boutique outfit. The town's pumping plant draws about 5 million gallons a day out of the Potomac River. Baltimore's water system -- which serves the city as well as parts of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties -- pumps about 130 million gallons daily out of its three reservoirs.
Before the taste test, Baltimore's prospects looked excellent.
Not only was the contest held in the city, the panel was stacked with three locals:
* H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore.
* Donald Torres, assistant commissioner of environmental services of the City Health Department.
* J. L. Hearn, director of the Water Management Administration of the state Department of the Environment.
But the test was blind, meaning judges weren't told which water was in which numbered glass. And the competition was murderous.
"There was very little difference between any of them," said Mr. Turner, who praised the "excellent quality" of the state's water systems. "I didn't give anybody a perfect score in anything," he said.
4 "But some waters stopped just short of perfect."
The biggest distinction, he said, was that some waters had a faint taste of chlorine, used to killed harmful organisms.
With his bow tie and cultured drawl, Mr. Turner seemed suited for the part of discriminating palate sizing up plebeian beverage.
But he said he isn't a water connoisseur. "They didn't pick us for our expertise," he said. "They just picked Joe Citizens."
In past contests, Baltimore's municipal moisture has scored well.
In February 1991, for example, Baltimore placed third out of 11 cities and towns in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia in a contest in Berkeley Springs. Charleston, W.Va., came in first.
Rockville wasn't in that contest.