At the forefront of the water movement is water sommelier Michael Mascha, who is working to "educate people about premium bottled water" in hopes of "taking bottled water to the next level and making it a luxury item" -- a lofty goal, considering the liquid is most often regarded strictly as a commodity. However, after a private water tasting at New York City's Cook. Eat. Drink. Live. convention last weekend with Mascha -- a retired food anthropology professor at USC and self-proclaimed "authority on the art of water tasting" -- there may be more to water than meets the eye.
More on the art of water tasting and 'fine water etiquette' after the jump.
Mascha turned to water in 2002, after his cardiologist warned the then wine lover against further alcohol consumption. He experienced a void: "Suddenly you're a pariah because you don't drink wine."
Water soon become his passion, resulting in his book, "Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters." He describes H20 using terms like "subtle," "bold" and "luscious." And while Slashfood's water enthusiast was skeptical about the differences between 13 different varieties of H20, they were palpable -- subtle, but present.
Though Mascha fears consumers are reluctant to try new territory, he talks about the importance of bottled water etiquette and encourages people to "start enjoying water like you do wine," contending that "water is something special to celebrate, like opening a nice bottle of wine."
Comparing himself to the "Robert Parker for bottled water," Mascha can pair fine water with food, depending largely on the water's mouthfeel. In general, mineral waters can substitute red wine, whereas soft water serves best to replace white wines. Thus, carbonated waters like Portugal's Pedras are similar to bold reds and would pair with red meats, steaks or "things that require water to stand up with them," whereas Hawaiian Springs, a "young," low-mineral drink, would pair with sushi, white poached fish or other subtle and delicate foods.
Water is best enjoyed at room temperature, he says. "The colder the water, the less you see a difference, as the tastebuds on your tongue are basically muted and you don't perceive it." Ironically, he admits to drinking plain tap water when thirsty, saving bottled waters for appreciative consumption.
But to what extreme should this be interpreted? Some waters are even being catered to celebrities or sold at clubs -- in health-conscious Miami, "luxury product" Bling H2O retails for $60 and has limited-edition bottles hand-decorated with Swarovski crystals. When asked how willing he thinks people are to shell out extra money for what's essential a free commodity, Mascha says, "I see a total willingness of people to engage and buy those luxury waters. When they understand that they're buying a totally different product, they're perfectly happy to spend money on it."
In a difficult economy, it seems unlikely that consumers would be willing to spend as much money on a commodity as they would on, say, a bottle of bubbly. Additionally restaurants are "extremely cheap," typically hiking water prices tenfold, a serious deterrent to potential buyers. And with the popularity of eating local, bottled water has received a natural backlash, which charges the drink's containers are wasteful and its carbon footprint due to shipping unnecessary at best.
Although premium bottled waters may indeed be "in transition from commodity to a natural product," it's doubtful people will be forking out $20 bills for them at clubs or bars any time soon.
|Not a penny - filtered tap water is good enough for me.||74 (52.1%)|
|I could imagine spending a few dollars for carbonated or other fresh waters on occasion.||47 (33.1%)|
|Absolutely, I could enjoy water like wine.||21 (14.8%)|