I went to a $50 Water-tasting, and now I’m Thirsty for More

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There are wine snobs and mixologists and beer geeks, but the next flavor frontier in the beverage world may be water. Yeah, mineral water. Snicker away, but the idea might not be as laughable as you think, especially if you ask king of the water-nerds Martin Riese. And if you have a chance to attend his Water 101 tasting class as I recently did, you too may even get excited about what he called “the healthiest beverage on the planet.”

The epicenter of (what Riese hopes is) America’s new water revolution is — of course — Los Angeles, California. The city was built in a desert, and from the Spanish missions to William Mulholland’s aqueduct, water has always driven the city’s development. But in the culture of excess on display in L.A., drinking-water doesn’t often get the respect it deserves. By giving water the same careful consideration that wine or spirits or beer enjoy, Riese hopes to change the perspective that water is a most mundane beverage.
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Riese made waves in L.A.’s food media — and was the butt of many jokes — in 2012 when he launched a 20-bottle-deep water menu at Los Angeles restaurant Ray’s and Stark Bar (where he’s the General Manager). But the German-born water sommelier (yeah, that’s a thing) has been obsessed with H20 since his childhood when the highlight of his family vacations was tasting the different tap waters of the European cities he visited.

Riese has made a career in fine dining, starting in Europe. He worked as maître d at Michelin-starred First Floor restaurant in the Palace Hotel Berlin, where one evening a simple request from a customer changed the trajectory of Riese’s life. The diner didn’t like the flavor of the brand of water offered by the restaurant and asked if there was another brand available. Before long, Riese had introduced a water menu and had become certified as a water sommelier to better help his guests “more fully enjoy [their] dining experience.” Years later, he’d take his skills to America on an onerous 0-1 visa — only given to individuals with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics” — for his water expertise.

While I’d heard of his water-menu, I first took real notice of Riese after the announcement of the $50 class held at the toney Patina Restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. Specifically when, on his Comedy Central show @Midnight, Chris Hardwick railed on the mere idea of a water-expert. I was struck that the “king of the nerds” would level such vitriol at someone for their choice of nerd-focus. I get it: it’s an easy laugh, and at first blush the idea of a water snob is ridiculous, but why?

Water is not only the most important element on the planet and the key to life itself, it’s the most commonly consumed beverage. Why shouldn’t people who care about flavor also care about water? As a “flavor professional”, beer-writer, and Certified Cicerone® I wanted to see for myself if Riese was on to something, or if he was as out-of-touch as so many writers and comics have suggested.
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At the Water 101 class — which he calls the first water tasting class in America — the svelte, genial Riese bubbled with enthusiasm, and any pretension was disarmed by his self-deprecating humor. He said he was very happy that Comedy Central made fun of him, but he was irked that Hardwick didn’t put more effort into the joke.

“He didn’t push the envelope. He didn’t even try to do a funny German accent,” Riese said with disappointment.

During the two-hour-long class, the dozen intrepid students would taste six unique mineral waters: three still and three sparking waters from across the globe, including Riese’s own brand of custom-designed mineral water “Beverly Hills 90H20.” The first taste was the relatively commonplace (at least in Los Angeles) VOSS water from Norway, and the evening culminated in a remarkable Slovenian water called ROI that Riese had specially shipped into the country for the class. This final water, one of the most mineral-rich spring waters on earth, was distinctive enough to convince even ardent doubters that water can indeed have flavor.

Tasting water is a lot like tasting anything else — only harder. When tasting wine or beer or most anything, the aroma is a huge aspect of the total flavor experience, but water should be odorless. “If water has an aroma,” Riese said, “there is something wrong with it.” And this absolute reliance on the tongue alone makes water-tasting a challenge even for trained palates. This challenge is heightened for the first water of a flight as the taster has nothing to compare it to. It just tastes like water. But as more of our wine glasses were filled with the slightly chilled spring waters (Riese recommends a serving temperature of 59-degrees Fahrenheit — similar to red wine), picking out the subtle differences become more straightforward as we could compare the briny quality of the renowned Vichy Catalan from Spain with the earthy notes of Denmark’s small-production Iskilde. And while the experience felt about as pretentious as that last sentence sounds, it was a lot of fun to fuss over the waters and chat with the other students.

Apart from the obvious difference in still and sparkling waters, the major factor in a water’s flavor is the amount of various minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium present. Bottled spring waters should all be labeled with their TDS or “total dissolved solids” levels; the higher the number, the more minerals — and flavor — the water contains. As we tasted each brand in turn, Riese covered topics from the science behind flavor in water, to the politics and ethics involved with the bottled water industry, to how to best pair water with food or activities, and how water impacts cooking and food preparation.

The evening was certainly educational, but you might ask if it was worth the $50 pricetag. As it was the price of the event that provoked the most incredulous commentary, the question of value was very much on my mind even though my ticket was comped by the restaurant. Outrage is an easy knee-jerk reaction to an idea as initially silly sounding as a water tasting, but people outraged at the cost may be missing the point of the evening. While $50 is a lot of money, it’s tough to put a value on such an experiential, educational experience. As someone professionally interested in flavor, a two-hour guided tasting of beverages from around the world in the posh setting of Patina Restaurant — located inside the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall — is not a bad way to blow $50. It baffles me that many people balk at the idea of paying for the class, then turn around and drop $6 on a cup of coffee, $15 on a cocktail, $100 on a bottle of wine, or a couple hundred on a fine meal.

You don’t have to buy-in to the idea of fancy artesian spring water, just like you don’t have to pony up the dough for craft brews over macros or single-origin third-wave coffees over a cup at the filling station. You can even poke fun at the idea, but at least be respectful towards the people who are interested in the flavors and experience that these beverages offer. It’s extremely disingenuous to scoff at the idea of buying a $5 or $10 bottle of mineral water for the flavor while swirling a $12 snifter of barrel-aged imperial stout at the hip craft beer bar.

Riese says that he’s heard cries of “only in L.A.” in reference to his water menus and tastings too many times to count, but the real “only in L.A.” aspect is that “everybody [in Los Angeles] is living in a desert, yet they don’t care where their water comes from. Water isn’t important to them,” Riese says.

The reality is water will only get more and more important to everyone in Los Angeles and in our overcrowded world. What’s the harm in leveling a little pretension at a beverage that we could all learn to appreciate a little more?

As part of the “Patina Next Course” educational series celebrating the 25th anniversary of the restaurant, Water 101 returns on April 1st and June 3rd, 2015.
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