Meet the sommelier who tastes water instead of wine

Martin Riese believes water is the most important beverage on the planet, and he's urging consumers to rethink the value of this precious resource.

Martin Riese is part of a very small pool of sommeliers who have made a profession out of tasting and judging water.

Meet the sommelier who tastes water instead of wine

Martin Riese believes water is the most important beverage on the planet, and he's urging consumers to rethink the value of this precious resource.

Martin Riese is part of a very small pool of sommeliers who have made a profession out of tasting and judging water.

Martin Riese doesn’t sip water—he slurps it. But only after swirling it around in stemmed glassware, sniffing it, and examining it with his every sense. If the liquid in his glass were another shade, any shade at all, onlookers might guess he’s a trained sommelier tasting wine—and they’d be half right. Riese is a water sommelier.

“When I started this whole water concept in 2012, everybody said, ‘Only in L.A. there is a water sommelier,’” says Riese, who received his certification from the German Mineral Water Trade Association. “And then I said to the people, ‘Only in L.A. do people think water has no value, but they’re living in the desert.’”

It’s an idea easy to laugh at (and many have made Riese the butt of their jokes), but as natural resources dry up globally and the bottled-water industry booms to the tune of a projected $280 billion by 2020, water experts—be they sommeliers or scientists—skilled at detecting water quality and taste may prove an asset. (Here are six plastic-free ways to travel with safe drinking water.)

Water elevated: That’s Riese’s motivator, for the masses to ascribe value to what he calls the “most important beverage on this planet.” To that end, Riese introduced a water menu with dozens of options to Ray’s and Stark Bar in Los Angeles in 2013, and later a two-hour, $50 water tasting at Patina, the restaurant inside the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. This hefty price-tag, comparable to a wine tasting, urges consumers to rethink the value of a precious resource that many of us take for granted. It’s the old Picasso maxim at work: With education comes appreciation. And Riese is nothing short of exuberant when it comes to our most fundamental life source. (Learn more about the world's clean water crisis.)

To begin to appreciate water in this way, you have to first accept that it does in fact have a taste, however subtle. Minerals like potassium and calcium lend water its flavor and are measured by a standard called TDS, or total dissolved solids. Think of TDS as a water’s natural terroir, the unique and defining characteristics it picks up as it flows from the source, not unlike the climatic relationship in wine grape profiles. According to the Fine Water Society, vintage also influences flavor, because it dictates the amount of time water has to absorb the minerals, yielding light, young waters and more robust, older ones.

Entire contests are devoted to sussing out these water qualities. At the 2019 Fine Waters tasting competition, which will be held in Stockholm, Sweden, this April, Riese and other water educators judge natural waters from around the world on a number system similar to an oenophile’s 100-point scale.

Meanwhile, the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, the world’s oldest and largest water competition, invites mostly amateur judges to assess some 100 municipal, bottled, sparkling, purified, and flavored-essence waters from around the world. Started as a tourism initiative nearly 30 years ago, the event hosts conversations between industry professionals on matters like global access to drinking water and is emceed by water master Arthur von Wiesenberger, who introduced a water tasting to his champagne and caviar club, Nipper’s, in the 1970s.

It’s been a slow build, and while water sommeliers are still exceptionally niche, the future of water is as clear as the liquid itself to Riese. “I think my goal is achieved [when] Lisa Simpson suddenly tells Homer Simpson that water has a taste,” he says, “and maybe suddenly I will show up as a character and will do a water taste test.”

Hannah Lott-Schwartz is a journalist based in San Diego. Catch her if you can at @itsaseahorse.