Today's column will turn wine into water. That's because the subject is Martin Riese, certified water sommelier for the Patina Group, specifically Ray's & Stark Bar at LACMA and Patina. It turns out the German-born Riese and water go way back. "When I was four years old and would go on vacation with my parents, the most interesting thing to me was to taste the tap water in different cities," he remembers. But it wasn't until 2005 that he came to his calling, for as he recalls, "A customer said to me, 'You have so many wines on your list, but only one water,' and I thought, 'He's absolutely right!' We're all about options in the restaurant world -- how many beers, how many wines -- well, water has a huge variety of tastes."
It turns out you just fall into a trap if you suggest to him that the best water would have no taste. Riese takes umbrage with the notion of best, as taste is in the mouth of the drinker, and adds, "Some mineral water, you'll have carbonation and salty notes, then a still water will have almost no mineral content and seem almost fruity." What's worse, a completely tasteless water "would be distilled water, and that's not good for your body. Water is an element that looks for minerals, a negative pulse, so when you drink distilled water your body can't really absorb it and you dehydrate yourself." He also asserts many doctors make these claims too, saying, "I just work in a restaurant, for me it's about taste."
But that's downplaying his own credentials: creating his first water menu in 2005, writing the book Die Welt des Wassers (The World of Water) in 2008, and getting certified as a water sommelier by the German Water Trade Association in 2010. While his water tastings have led to some laughs along the way with appearances on Conan O'Brien and jokes on Comedy Central, people can and do spend $50 for a water tasting class.
"For the first sixty minutes of the class," he says, "we just talk about water -- the effect it has on human beings, on baking, on beer making." Riese first talks about how much water is wasted worldwide -- he's not a big fan of watered lawns in Southern California -- and finally it comes to our tasting of five mineral waters. "I'll talk a little bit about each water and where it's from," he says, "but I let the class start describing the taste. It doesn't make sense for me to say, 'It's fruity,' or you have the placebo effect, and they just agree." Evidently, he says class attendees tend to agree 85-90% on the descriptors. (He also encourages people to try it at home, just be sure to taste the waters side-by-side; it's not like a wine tasting where you need to cleanse your palate between sips.)
The benefits of a water tasting go beyond the moment, too. "If you taste a wine afterward, it will be more powerful," he says, "as you've focused so much on tasting the water." A tasting also prepares you for food pairings of the kind Riese will help you with at Ray's. "In California we've just been able to serve foie gras again," he begins, "or you could eat something with truffles and cream. Rich food like that would pair perfectly with a sparkling water with minerals to refresh your palate. Then you might want a still water with less complexity with a salad with vinaigrette. It will help you lower the acidity, and you'll get more aroma from the greens."
And while Riese makes a big production of high-end water, he stresses, "It's a human right to have clean water and I support the groups fighting for that as well." He points out by comparison that people don't have qualms about eating at a restaurant, while hungry people might be just down the block. Instead he says, "Our menu shows us that water has value. It should be the biggest thing in our lives, because without it no one would be on this planet."