We Went To A Water Tasting Which Is Exactly What It Sounds Like
We went to a water tasting, which is exactly like a wine tasting as it turns out, except that no one gets drunk. When we found out that there was a water tasting, we expressed little surprise. That sounds like a Los Angeles thing to do, but it also sounds like the plot of a dystopian movie. Some people don't even have clean water, and here's a bunch of assholes paying $50 to taste different types of water at Patina, a French restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that has two more dollar signs on Yelp than I typically like. Clearly, we had to try it out, for journalism.
When I arrive at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, I am led with several others—quite a few of them other journalists—into a room dominated by a large table. At each seat there are six clean glasses, as well as a guide to the waters we will be tasting. We are given a pen to mark the nuances of the water: its taste, how bubbly is it, and its "mouthfeel."
Iskilde was particularly silky, we agreed (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah/LAist)
I notice is that there is absolutely no cell phone signal in this room, so I have lost my ability to communicate with the outside world. When we are all asked how we found out about the water tasting, I am convinced that we are in a And Then There Were None situation. A man sitting next to me who identifies himself as someone who works for a bottled water company in San Diego asks me if I have ever written about water before. "The drought," is literally all I can think of to say. Oh, and we wrote about a giant water slide that never happened once. One writer jokingly asks if we'll have a spit bucket like at a wine tasting, and another person chimes in that you can never have too much water. But you can: it's called dilutional hyponatremia, and people have died from it.
Soon enough, a man in a well-tailored coat enters and introduces himself as Martin Riese, water sommelier. He has really laid claim to the title, even appearing on Conan O'Brien to give the host a water tasting. He developed a 45-page water menu for LACMA's Ray's & Stark Bar, and has been working with Patina on their own robust water selection. He also wrote an entire a book about water. "Some people think I'm crazy, but that's fine with me," he tells us. "I like to stay hydrated."
Riese has an interesting backstory. He grew up in Germany in a very small town near the North Sea. When vacationing with his parents, he would notice the tap water tasted different in various cities. He claims that this was one of the most interesting parts about vacationing. As an adult, Riese worked predominantly in restaurants. He first worked with the Patina Group through Patina Catering at the Hollywood Bowl, but the idea of a water menu had not occurred to him yet. This would come later, after he had returned to Germany. He was running a prominent restaurant (with one Michelin star, he noted) at Hotel Palace Berlin. One fateful day, a customer told him they didn't like the restaurant's one brand of water. Riese realized that while most restaurants offer many beers and wines, they typically only offer one water. He recalled his tap water travels as a child, and began working on a separate water menu for the restaurant. He quipped that while his life's work is constantly harangued with "Only in L.A." here, it was a lot of "Only in Berlin," there. Riese became a mineral water sommelier from the German Mineral Water Trade Association in 2010.
But Germany was rainy, something Riese didn't like. He likes his water bottled, not falling out of the sky, apparently. He happened to see an old man on a particularly dreary day. The man was wearing a cap that said "Santa Monica" and Riese realized it was a sign. He must go back to California.
That's not as easy as it sounds. Though he had previously worked for Patina, he had to figure out how to get back into the United States for good. It was Patina's lawyer who came up with the idea to have him apply as having an extraordinary ability, or an EB-1. This is a special condition that usually applies to famous actors or musicians or prize-winning scientists. Riese's ability is that he is possibly the world's only water sommelier, and it worked. Riese and his wife moved to Los Angeles.
Riese would go on to develop those aforementioned water menus, as well as to design his own water, "90H20," which comes from a spring in Northern California and has a patented formulation. Conan O'Brien told him that he was going to prison for that pun. Riese, to his credit, is very aware of how easy it is to poke fun at a water sommelier.
The thing that most affects how water tastes seems to be TDS, which stands for Total Dissolved Solids. A water with a high TDS would have a lot of things like magnesium and sodium and calcium that has been dissolved in it. Mineral water, for example, will have a higher TDS than distilled water. The higher the TDS, the stronger the taste. In Germany, Riese said, they like their mineral waters. This is because it's believed that the minerals are healthy and you need them, and getting rid of them with purified water all the time is bad for you.
Of the six still and sparkling waters we tried, the first water was VOSS' still water. You know the bottle. This was our starter water, served at about 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This is Riese's preferred temperature for water. He doesn't understand why Americans put ice in everything and dilute it. (Yeah, yeah, dilute water.) Now VOSS has a TDS of 25, and that's pretty low.
As we move through the waters, each has a higher TDS. Riese's Bevelry Hills 90H20, for example, has a TDS of over 400. Our final water was ROI, a water from Slovenia that is billed as the world's most magnesium-rich water. While my palate was not refined enough to register a difference between the first few waters, the ROI and some higher TDS waters actually did taste different. They had a sharper, saltier taste—especially compared to the VOSS. The mouthfeel was harder for me to distinguish, though most of the other guests agreed that a water called Iskilde did feel somehow smoother than the other still waters.
So, okay, Riese. Your waters have varied tastes, but why would anyone in their right mind want to spend money on more expensive waters listed on a carefully curated water menu? Well, Riese says that some water pairs well with certain foods. He claims his own Beverly Hills 90H20 will neutralize spicy foods, though we did not test this. He also admitted that bottled water is a luxury, and did address the part where some people don't have access to any clean water, let alone an entire menu.
"[Clean water] is a human right," he said. "We should be thankful." He went on to say that his menus give water a value, and he hopes that if people value water, they'll think about taking shorter showers and not using sprinklers on their lawn—especially in drought-stricken Los Angeles.
Water world (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah/LAist)
After sampling all six waters, Patina offered us a sampling of small bites. They were all very delicious. We were invited to ask questions at this point, and Riese asked us our favorite waters. I made up a totally inane reason for why I liked a sparkling water called Vichy Catalan, but I am a liar. Just give me the Voss, I am unrefined.
If you're feeling cynical, you could decide this is a ridiculous way to spend $50. We wouldn't fault you. If you're feeling optimistic, it's a chance to do a unique thing that you've probably never thought about before. Riese has a clear passion for water, and it's interesting when anyone becomes so consumed with a single issue. He will talk to you at great lengths about water, and you will learn a lot. You will talk about how water affects beer, bagels (the water is purportedly why Angelenos will never have NYC bagels), cooking and coffee. Though the invite to the event said it would go from 6 to 7 p.m., the tasting dragged on until almost 9 p.m. because that's how much we were talking about water. I'll assume that they'll be amending this on their invites for their upcoming sessions on April 1 or June 3, but this is something to be mindful of if you, like me, had made plans for later in the evening. Otherwise you'll have to tell you friends you're an hour late because you were at a water tasting.