Meet the unlikely specialist making the case for boiling pasta in mineral water—and giving filtered water to your dog
A group of twenty people gathered around a large table at a restaurant in Stockholm. They had come from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where they shared frustrations around their communal inability to participate in wine selection at restaurants, among other things. Sure, there are sodas and mocktails, but if you order a Coke, you know what it’s going to taste like, and the waiter doesn’t usually let you sample a sip of your virgin raspberry mojito before serving you the whole drink. These particular recovering alcoholics chose this particular restaurant because its drink selection expanded beyond customary lists of wines and beers. It supplied a water menu, from which patrons could swish and sample without compromising their sobriety. A buoyant German man was available to suggest which water might pair best with your lamb chops. “Martin,” they oozed. “Thank you so much.”
Mr. Martin Riese is a water sommelier and the creator of water menus for restaurants across the globe. And no, it is not a made-up job. In 2011, his move to Los Angeles made him the first recorded of his kind in America, but water sommeliers aren’t entirely uncommon in Europe. They even have a certification process by which Riese officially adopted the title. It is so real, in fact, that there is a union dedicated to the position with corporate sponsors, members from more than 25 countries, and even periodic sensory assessment reports that systematically rate mineral waters.
Despite holding proper certification from the German Water Trade Association, maintaining regard as the “world’s foremost expert on water,” co-authoring the leading European book on the subject, Die Welt des Wasser (or, World of Water), and serving as a Water Tasting Educator at the Fine Water Academy (an institution of his own invention), when introducing his title, Riese is often addressed as a ridiculous proponent of novelty. Why is it that sommeliers of wine are culturally regarded as elegant and knowledgeable where those of water are deemed derisory?
He approaches his work with au courant certainty, curating his water lists carefully—they range in both price and flavor. Close-minded, taste-challenged skeptics (including the writers of Wikipedia’s “water” page) might say that water is tasteless. The flavor is usually subtle, so they aren’t entirely ignorant in saying so, but, rather, haven’t been trying to taste it.
“Why is it that sommeliers of wine are culturally regarded as elegant and knowledgeable where those of water are deemed derisory?”
The flavor in water, Riese explains, comes from the Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS, levels. The higher the TDS level, the stronger the flavor. And the flavors do vary: Fiji is sweet, Evian has a slightly bitter aftertaste. If you want to enjoy the fullest experience of your water, it’s best served at room temperature—chill it, and you’ll numb your taste buds. Even with the considerable piquancy of alcohols and syrups, the ice cubes in your cocktails have enough flavor to alter the taste of your drink, much to the surprise of some Las Vegas bartenders who once found themselves in Riese’s company. (They have since made considerable changes in sourcing cubes for their bars.) The taste of water has such an impact that as I speak to Riese, he pointedly cooks his pasta in mineral water instead of tap from the kitchen of his home in Los Angeles.
Though a vigorous proponent of supporting smaller businesses like Hildon (a low-sodium, natural mineral water from the chalk hills of the Hampshire countryside) and Nevas (an artesian spring water with absurdly high TDS levels), there are some major water brands he enjoys. Others, not so much. The gentrifying youth of Bushwick and Highland Park should drop the modish, overpriced LaCroix. Riese won’t touch the stuff. Aside from being artificially flavored (why not flavor your own water?), it’s purified. Purified water, to Riese, is a satanic wrong that man desperately needs to right. “Purified” just means they’ve taken out all the good stuff, minerals like calcium and magnesium.
If you are buying by the bottle, Riese suggests mountain waters. Spring water, water that comes straight from the source, excavated directly from a borehole in a Swedish alpine and poured into your cup—that is the caviar of water.
Tap water is not always the best option. Not to say it is abominable to drink from the tap. Riese is not a water snob and is a proponent for the accessibility of better, cleaner water for all. But until then, a Brita filter should do the trick.
The tap is actually where Riese first discovered his love of water. As a child, his family took numerous vacations where his parents noticed their son engage in strange behavior. Upon arrival, he’d promptly run to the nearest sink and slurp a cup of water, smacking his lips and reveling in the unfamiliar flavor.
He grew up in Aventoft, the northernmost town on the Danish border of Germany. The population is small, less than 500 people, but its nifty location coupled with lower national tax rates means it regularly receives an ample number of Danish visitors and so, Aventoft’s restaurants outnumber the needs of its residents. It is unsurprising then, that the restaurant business absorbed Riese’s father, who made his career in it and consequently felt it important to expose his son to the culinary arts, which included wine. Riese wasn’t downing wine in his adolescence. It was just that every so often his parents would give him taste with the intent of cultural education. He soon developed a palette, as they had hoped he would. They just hadn’t expected that palette would find application in water. “They thought I was kind of strange,” he mused. “They still think I’m kind of strange.” To Riese, water seemed a natural transition from wine; natural in a way it only can be to the mind of a child, untainted by socially constructed boundaries that tell us water is purely functional.
He was passionate about it in the way some are with collecting coins and comics. Content in maintaining his fascination as a hobby of sorts, Riese stumbled into the business of water accidentally. His fortuitous pursuit began with a more traditional job in the restaurant business at a high-end hotel on Sylt, the so-called Hamptons of Germany. It wasn’t until then, when a patron asked him, “Martin, why do you not have more options for water?” that flashbacks of sampling the tap as a young boy overwhelmed him to the point of action: he would create water menus. And he did. From here, he was deemed, by local press, a water sommelier.
“To Riese, water seemed a natural transition from wine; natural in a way it only can be to the mind of a child, untainted by socially constructed boundaries that tell us water is purely functional.”
After constructing a respectable career in his homeland, Riese moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of a dream familiar to the starlets and singers who hope to infiltrate the living rooms of homes all over the world: he wanted to be on the big screen, for his face and his words to reach legions of prospective disciples. His Hollywood pursuits proved successful by most standards. Americans, Riese notes, regard anything unfamiliar to them as “not real.” So, in the States, he could play to the novelty of his work and climb the ladder of fame.
The presumed ridiculousness associated with his title earned him a spot on Conan where he let the charming host’s insults roll off his back (with a tolerance atypical to American reality television), a GQ sponsored tasting of a $100,000 bottle of water with 2 Chainz and Diplo (a major inspiration from Riese DJ’ing days and now, a Twitter mutual), a feature on Zac Efron’s docuseries where Anna Kendrick rudely dismisses him at a tasting just minutes before becoming almost intoxicated by water as if it were wine, and even a slot on the show of the insurmountable science guy, Bill Nye, where he samples astronaut water (which is very directly recycled from the showers and bodies of the astronauts themselves, resulting in its very pungent and, erm, acquired taste).
He’s done pretty well at it too. Riese is the proud owner of four expensive-looking, extremely postable Porsches. Heavy packages full of bottled water hoping to break into the industry litter his doorstep on a daily basis. He’s developed a distinctive persona, much of which he sees as rooted in his untainted German accent.
Even with success that has surpassed the expectations of most of the hopefuls who flood Hollywood with optimistic dreams, his position remains unfamiliar to most. There is a distinction that is repeatedly made by those who experience him only fleetingly between what he does and the duties of a “real” sommelier.
While today, sommelier is by and large used to refer to “wine waiters,” it did not always carry such meaning. The term sommelier has French origins with its beginnings relating to herdsman. The word likely is rooted in somier, which means a beast of burden, or an animal that carries a load for a human. Under the reign of Louis XIV, the word evolved in application to refer to those responsible for the transportation of the luggage of traveling French royalty, and so, the burden became man’s. The sommelier eventually became the chooser of wines, table settings, and desserts, as well as the checker for poison. If the sommelier died, his master would avoid the food he had sampled. To my knowledge, that no longer falls under the list of duties of the sommeliers of the modern world. Language is ever-changing and Riese’s rendition is just the latest revision to a heretofore readily revised term.
The Chair of the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers is currently occupied by Emily Wines (yes, that is her true, given name). She’s heard of water sommeliers, even mustard sommeliers, but is unbothered by the use of the term. “We don’t own the word,” she asserts with a humble force.
Wine, though heavily rated and rather appetizing to the adult palette, seems to be an actual novelty when compared to water, which is required both by our body and planet in innumerable ways. It’s the main constituent of our hydrosphere, a daily necessity, and provider of nutrients. So where is the ridiculousness in a position devoted to educating people on its consequence and unexplored variety?
While the processes of becoming a sommelier of mustard, honey, beer, and hot sauce (all of which are in practicing existence) remain warbly and non-linear, the certification of water sommeliers is fairly established and seems to fall in line with that of wine. Like Riese, they often work various positions in the restaurant biz before officially claiming the title. The certification process entails courses and testing much like those of the Court that Wines serves.
“Wine, though heavily rated and rather appetizing to the adult palette, seems to be an actual novelty when compared to water, which is required both by our body and planet in innumerable ways.”
The responsibilities of a water sommelier expand beyond the traditional sense of the word—they are tasked with making people care about water, something that is so present and built into the functional world that it has become almost mundane. Riese’s days are spent bringing a consciousness to water with tastings, lecturing the public on water inequity, combating the dangerous and looming privatization of water, discouraging water waste, and recruiting fellow waterphiles to consecrate their lives to the same missions. Riese is making water, which has long held a reputation as bland, sensational. Alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike can experience intoxication through hydration and the unadulterated glee of sipping multiple refreshments in one sitting. My mom can feel entirely justified in her anger when I mistakenly fill the dog bowl with tap instead of filtered water.
All of this is, for Riese, as it is for many in the pursuit of greatness, not enough. The fantasy that fills sleepless nights positions him as the Anthony Bourdain of water, traveling around the world to learn and teach about the wondrous complexities of the substance. On television, of course.