The Water Sommelier

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Can Martin Riese teach us how to value water by charging big prices in high-end restaurants?

By Ryan O’Hanlon

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Martin Riese. (Photo: Joe Toreno)

It’s not hardto make fun of Martin Riese — and he knows it.

“A German guy with that accent, talking about water in Los Angeles? It’s a perfect comedy thing, obviously,” Riese says.

In a city where so many ventures appear to be the result of someone with lots of disposable income filling out a Mad Libs story and deciding “Hey, that could be a business,” Riese, who is a professional water sommelier, fits in. On my drive home from our water tasting, I first passed a Detroit-based luxury-watch store that also sells pressed juice and frequently updates its rooftop billboard with progressively more awful jokes. Then, a few blocks from my apartment, there was the American-vegan restaurant owned by an electronic-dance-music icon. Hell, I live across the street from a “Spiritual Healer and Advisor.”

Yet Riese maintains that he’s more than just another Angeleno curiosity. “Some people in the media say, ‘Oh sure, a water sommelier in the biggest drought in America — only in L.A.’”

“We’re living in the desert and nobody cares about water,” he says. “That is, for me, ‘Only in L.A.’”

Riese’s parentstell him that he was always thirsty. Sometime around the age of four, he began looking forward to family vacations away from their tiny hometown of Aventoft in north Germany — not for the local history or architecture, but because each trip meant another opportunity to sample the tap water in a new city.

“In 2005, I began drinking water professionally,” says Riese, who speaks with a thick, impossible-to-parody accent, from behind the bar at Patina, a shiny French-American restaurant where he’s the manager and water sommelier.

“I’m saying that you should value water more than gas. When there’s no more water, try to drink your gas.”

Seven years ago, while a manager at First Floor, a Berlin restaurant, Riese was approached by a customer who wondered why First Floor offered such a wide-ranging wine menu but only had one kind of water. “Water has taste,” Riese says. “Why not create a water menu?”

So he did, and he hasn’t stopped since. In 2008, he wrote a book, Die Welt des Wassers(“The World of Waters”). In 2010, the German Mineral Water Association gave him an official certification as a “water sommelier.” (Around 103 people have received this certificate.) In 2011, he came to L.A. on an O-1 visa — reserved for “individuals with extraordinary ability.”

Riese first created a water menu for Ray’s & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which resulted in a significant increase in water sales at the restaurant. Now, four restaurants in the city offer Riese’s extensive menu of high-end mineral and spring waters. He teaches water-tasting classes. He lives in Hollywood, drives a Porsche, and has even become something of a (very minor) celebrity, appearing on Conan with Conan O’Brien. As part of GQ’s “Most Expensivest Shit” series, he opened a $100,000 bottle of water with the rapper 2 Chainz and Diplo, a world-famous D.J. The YouTube video has over four million views.

Now 39, though, Riese’s palate has evolved: “I don’t like the taste of tap water. Therefore, I’m not drinking it.”

While he didn’t offer me any water from the tap, Riese says he’ll pour it for customers with a smile on his face. Instead, he had me try four bottled waters — all poured into long-stemmed wine glasses.

First, Fiji, which goes for $8 per bottle and is essentially the platonic ideal of what you or I think water should taste like. Then, Iskilde ($12), a Danish spring water that looks bubbly in the glass but is actually still. It’s available only in restaurants because, as Riese puts it, “You don’t want a Louis Vuitton bag in Ralph’s.” And after Fiji, it did taste slightly … heavier. Next up was Vichy Catalan (also $12), a naturally sparkling Spanish water that Riese calls the “Arrowhead of Spain.” To me, it tasted like a more-refreshing, less-medicinal Alka Seltzer. Despite its ubiquity in major cities like Barcelona, Riese says, “Bottled water with a taste like this would offend people [in America].” (When Riese offered Vichy to O’Brien, the late-night host spit it onto the floor.)

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This story first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

Then came Roi — or, as Riese says, “the big boy.” It’s not on the water menu, and it can’t be purchased in the United States. While I take my first sip, he looks at me as if I’m about to walk into my own surprise party and says, “Jesus, huh?” It’s a sparkling, Slovenian water, which, according to Riese, has the highest magnesium content of any water on the planet. He also refers to it as the “Red Bull of nature,” claiming that he drank a full bottle after an alcohol-filled “berserker” night in Hollywood and woke up without a headache. The minerals immediately left residue on the wine glass, and it’s a wonder that the inoffensive Fiji and Roi, which I can’t ever imagine having more than a few sips of, are both water.

All of the waters on Riese’s 45-page menu occur naturally and contain minerals — some even have more electrolytes than a bottle of Gatorade. This is where the waters get their different flavor profiles from, and Riese feels that any water worth drinking should retain its source minerals.

He calls purified waters, like Smartwater, which is filtered of its original minerals and then pumped with electrolytes, “the biggest scam on the planet.” And he compares purified water to processed food: “I’m not drinking that, I’m not buying it, I’m not promoting it, I don’t wanna see it, and I would never have that on the water menu because I believe in quality — from nature.”

Of course, taste isn’t a concern for the 600-million-plus people on the planet without access to clean water. And nor is it for many of the residents in Riese’s home state of California, where the current drought stretches into its fifth year. Some academics have warned that we’re not too far away from water becoming a more valuable commodity than oil. And as the final shot of The Big Short laid out, Michael Burry, the man who foresaw the housing crisis before anyone else, now invests in only one thing: water.

“The countries who have access to water, they are the richest countries,” Riese says. “And the countries who are battling for water, they have real economic problems.”

In this environment, the optics of promoting and providing pricey bottled water to people who already have access to clean, cheap water might seem a bit off. Riese, though, sees himself as a partial agent in changing our relationship to water: “I’m giving value to something where people think there isn’t a value,” he says.

“Obviously, I don’t want water to become a super-luxury product,” Riese says. “On the other hand, I’m saying that you should value water more than gas. When there’s no more water, try to drink your gas.”

Besides, compared to most other things we eat and drink, producing water has a minimal impact on, well, water. It takes about 1.4 liters of water to make one liter of bottled water; one glass of wine can use more than 100 liters of water; a pound of apples needs about 315 liters of water; and everyone’s favorite drought scourge, the almond, requires over 500 gallons to produce a pound of nuts.

“If you want to fight the drought,” Riese says, “eat less steak.”

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