Admit it — you chuckled a bit when you heard about the Ray's & Stark Bar was launching "Los Angeles' most extensive water menu." Uh, a water menu? You mean sparkling or tap, right? Not so much.
Manager and self-proclaimed water sommelier Martin Riese is definitely not laughing. Judging by some excellent "kill 'em with kindness" responses to the haters on Twitter, Riese is making it known that water is following the same trajectories of wine and beer: everyone wants a better wine or beer, and everyone wants a better water. Again, you might laugh reading about Fiji's water's "mouthfeel" (and you'll have a heart attack at the $10 price tag), but Riese is a true believer in the case for water. A bit like Jesus turning wine back to water? Almost (after all, Riese still loves his wine).
Riese tells The Daily Meal that he got his start in the restaurant industry in Germany; he's originally from Denmark. As a kid, he would watch his father taste the different tap waters wherever they went on vacation. "Some people were like, 'oh, he's just thirsty,' but I was like, 'I get it.'" It was the start of a "water sommelier" career, where he created his own water program at the Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin, First Floor. And there, it wasn't just the 20 water varietals on the menu, like at Ray's & Stark Bar — there were 40. "There's more than 580 brands of water, in Germany alone," he says.
He moved to Los Angeles (for the weather, he says) after earning his certification as a water sommelier from the German Mineral Water Association. Now, he brings his water program to Ray's & Stark Bar. And yes, he realizes you think that he's probably crazy — but that's because of the water you've been drinking all your life. "People don't understand that water has a taste," he says. "The problem with tap water is that it's so heavily chlorinated, so all you're tasting is the chlorine." And don't even get him started on the water bottles you'll find in the supermarket aisle. All of those waters come from the same sources, he says, so they have similar mineralities and taste the same. Not to mention the imparting taste of a plastic bottle ("leave a bottle of water in the car for two hours, and then taste it — plastic").
What people don't realize, he says, is that water is in fact very close to wine: if you've got fine-tuned taste buds to tell where wines come from by taste, you can do the same with water. Riese says he can even tell a difference between water that comes from East Germany and West Germany. "Terroir is the coolest thing about water, in my opinion," he says. "It's the same with wine — you can really tell where it comes from." Riese's menu spans ten different countries, and where they're from makes a big difference. "I wanted to show Americans that bottled waters do taste different," he says.
And it's the same for water and food pairings, believe it or not. Most waters are bitter, like the premium water VOZ, which goes great with a lot of vinegar-based salad dressings (that's easy enough). Some waters are trickier: Fiji, a water that Riese describes as sweeter, should be paired with desserts. His own branded water (yes, Riese has made his own bottled water), 9OH2O, complements a stinky blue cheese: the water washes away the acidity, while the aromas of the cheese are left behind. "It's like wine producers growing grapes on their terroir and crafting their own wines; pinot noir can taste differently from two different producers," he says. "I thought to myself, OK — how can I do this with water?"
Since the water program's informal launch this weekend, Riese says everyone has been on board — and he's converted some skeptics. "People have told me, 'you're pioneers," he says, noting that they were from Napa Valley wine country. And making true to some claims on Twitter, he says he'll take anyone's skepticism and transform it into belief; he says he's at a 100-percent success rate. Do we believe it? My coworkers later told me it sounded like I'd drunk the "water-flavored Kool-Aid," but I'll admit, my bottled water did a lot better in a glass than the tap water from the fridge. Riese just might be on to something.