Sommelier turns water into cash
August 19th, 2013
01:00 PM ET
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Last week, Ray’s and Stark Bar, located inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced a 43-page water tasting menu that spans 10 countries and prices bottles anywhere from $8 to $20. The menu is listed in alphabetical order by country of origin and rates the water on a scale of sweet to salty, smooth to complex.

If 43 pages of water is too much to wrap your taste buds around, don't fret, there is an in-house water sommelier to aid in the selection process.

The restaurant's general manager, Martin Riese, serves as the first and only water sommelier in the United States. Riese hails from Northern Germany, close to the Danish border.

“Where I’m from, it’s the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. There’s a lot of water there. For me, it was always what I loved because this is the element that everything starts with," he said. "Without water - and everybody knows that, as well - we couldn’t live. Water is the most important element in our life, and it’s responsible for life.”

In 2005, while working in Germany as a restaurant manager, a customer approached Riese with a complaint about the brand of water being served at the restaurant.

“It was almost like a mind-opener for me. He was totally right. We have a selection of wines, why shouldn’t we have a selection of waters?” Riese said.

Riese created a specialized menu of 40 different waters - double what is currently available at Ray’s and Stark Bar.

Riese started to drink water "professionally" in 2009, and co-wrote a book, Die Welt des Wassers ("The World of Water"), on the subject in the German language. He was officially certified by the German Mineral Water Trade Association as a water sommelier in 2010.

"It was more like learning by doing, I would say. I was drinking water, water, water all the time. You cannot believe how many times I had to go to the restroom for that,” he joked.

Riese believes that just as customers have a choice in food, wine and spirits, they should also be free to select the right water to fit their palate. He insists it’s not much different from a wine pairing.

“Wine and water have so many of the same aspects. For example, wine always depends on where the grapes are growing. It’s all about the terroir, as we say in the wine business. It’s exactly the same with water," Riese said.

He continued: "Most [water] comes from the same origin: it’s rainwater at one point. It dribbles down on the ground, then this water sinks down to different layers and it takes the minerals with it.” (These minerals show up in water as TDS, or Total Dissolved Solids, per liter. All mineral water has a TDS level that serves as a measuring tool for subtle differences in taste.)

Riese explains that the introduction of the water menu not only expands the horizons of taste options for customers, but also creates a more inclusive atmosphere in the restaurant. He describes an interaction with a couple who, for medical reasons, were no longer able to drink alcohol. They had missed the ceremonial selection and pairing of wines with their dinner, and the water list provided the same feeling for them. That’s when Riese knew he had made a meaningful breakthrough.

So, how does one go about choosing a water to pair with their meal?

Riese says customers often ask what he recommends, but he first likes to get a sense of what type of water they're drinking on a regular basis, whether sparkling or flat.

From there, Riese says the second question will gauge if the customer prefers something on the smoother side or wants to try something a little more complex, whether saltier or more bitter.

Unsurprisingly, reactions to the new menu provide some complexities of their own. Some media outlets and even customers have expressed doubt in the menu’s authenticity, insisting that it’s all the same.

To the critics, Riese says: “Yes, you’re right. It’s the same chemical reaction, but the taste can be very different, because it’s all about the TDS levels. Our water menu starts at the TDS level of under 10mg per liter and goes up to over 3,500 TDS per liter. Obviously, this water has a different taste.”

While a brand he helped create, Beverly Hills 90H2O, is popular at the restaurant, Riese insists that he prefers his customers to have a choice, which is why the 43-page, leather-bound booklet features waters familiar (Fiji, Perrier) and unknown (Iskelde, Vichy Catalan).

“It’s all about taste for me. Taste and options.” And most people, Riese suggests, are looking “to try something different.”

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Filed under: Restaurants • Sip • Water

soundoff (78 Responses)
  1. Edwin

    “Wine and water have so many of the same aspects."

    Sure they do! They're both liquids, and uh...well...

    August 20, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  2. ohioan

    While I think a 42 page water menu is pretty ridiculous, I do notice changes in water depending on where I am. There are also several brands of bottled water that I will only drink in an emergency as I think they taste horrible. I do think it's possible to have a 42 page menu but i wouldn't pay the price to try it out. I'll drink my tap water when home, and bottled when out and about. My work building is over 100 years old, boss-man buys us bottled water as he doesn't want us drinking from these old pipes.

    August 20, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  3. Water lover

    Water is delicious

    August 19, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  4. Miked

    People will believe anything they read on a menu.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  5. ORChuck

    I have a soda siphon, a device that turns tap (or bottled) water into soda water using a cartridge of carbon dioxide gas.

    I also have a ISI-Whip, a device that turns cream into whipped cream using a cartridge of nitrous oxide gas.

    So, I have in my kitchen both carbon dioxide charger cartridges and nitrous oxide charger cartridges. Unfortunately, the two types of charger cartridges are mechanically interchangeable.

    If you use the wrong type of cartridge and accidentally whip cream with carbon dioxide by accident, what comes out is more of soupy froth. CO2 is heavier and doesn't impart the desired lightness to the cream.

    If you carbonate water with CO2, it comes out as we expect "soda" water to be. And it has a slightly-metallic taste. (Club soda is carbonated water with a trace of salt added.) But, if you accidentally "carbonate" water with nitrous oxide, two things happen, first, it goes flat very quickly. And, second, it tastes a little bit sweet.

    So, yes, waters can taste different depending on what impurities are in them.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  6. Adam

    Sucker born every minute. I have a list of best smelling air from around the world. I'm willing to sell you jars of it......

    August 19, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  7. Steve

    "Professional Water Drinker" = Professional 5 Knuckle Shuffler

    August 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  8. NotYoDaddy


    August 19, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Ray

    Ridiculous! Enough said.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  10. David DeForge

    Me: What kind of water comes from the tap?
    Waiter: Um' local...?
    Me: I'll have that.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  11. Bryan

    I wish I had YOUR problems, CNN. I wish my life was so amazingly easy and carefree that I could manage to muster up the ability to care about choosing which water to drink with what entree. I wish my life were that easy.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  12. scooterdie

    Water should be free. Not just in restaurants. It is as essential to life as air. I am not a big water drinker, frankly I hate the stuff and the only time I have it is as ice is something else. Paying 8 to whatever, is a disgrace. When tasted, most people prefer the taste of tap water over the bottle stuff. Additionally, more often the bottled IS the tap stuff. Finally, I live in an area where our water is from springs, Donald Trump bottles his stuff from the same source as mine. Finally, tap water is safer, as it checked 200 times more often than bottled.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Talked to a Coca Cola person once. Dasani is treated Atlanta tap water sold to you at$4/bottle in the airports. LOL

      August 20, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • JellyBean

      Tap water in the US is free, what you pay for is cleaning it and the delivery of it to your home/business.

      August 22, 2013 at 8:03 am |
  13. Bobby Boucher

    It's's cold......that's some high quality H2O!

    August 19, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  14. Mike C

    Meanwhile, thousands of kids in the US go hungry. Despicable.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  15. Cindy

    The scientific definition of water: Water is a liquid found on Earth which is known as H20 that has no odor or taste.
    So, how do you taste water? Only if it has something else in it. I prefer the tasteless variety.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • ORChuck

      If you want truly-pure dihydrogen monoxide, H2O, you can buy it... bottled, of course. It's about $350/gallon from laboratory supply companies. And it is truly tasteless. You can feel it in your mouth, but there is no taste.

      What you get from a tap or from any consumer-grade bottled water has something else in it. And many of those "something elses" add flavor. If you travel and drink tap water as you go - if only to rinse your mouth out after brushing - then you know that some tap water is a bit sulfurous, some is a bit salty, some is bit metallic, some is a bit sweet. It varies from place-to-place.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
      • Liz

        And some of it tastes like chlorine. Yuk

        August 21, 2013 at 6:52 am |
  16. Radracer

    There was a shop in Carmel,CA that sold water from all over the world at crazy high prices. The guy thought people would one day order water off a menu like you order wine. Guess what? The place had no business and went bust within 6 months.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  17. logical positivist

    I'd like to point out that total dissolved solids (TDS) also can include bacteria and human waste. It's all a matter of taste I suppose. How can they prove that their water doesn't all come from New Jersey tap water (like lots of bottled water does)? How is this regulated? At least 25% of bottled water is municipal tap water. I remember in the early 1980s I laughed when I heard that companies were starting to sell water in bottles. I'm still laughing since water is far less regulated than people think it is.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  18. Jerry

    So he is an overpriced waterboy?

    August 19, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Bobby Boucher

      Now, see, a waterboy is a very important job, because it's the waterboy's responsibility to make sure the team gets the hydration, that's what my Mama told me. So I bring the water to Mister Coach Klein's players when they gets thirsty on account of playing in the hot Louisiana sun. I only ask that you show the proper respect for this important job that I am honored to do.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Alligators don't have no abdulla omblagata

        August 20, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  19. Warren Adams

    Seems to me that I recall that the Vienna Philharmonic brought its own water from Vienna when on tour. Beyond that, we lived in Vienna for 20+ years and found the tap water there so very excellent compared with city waters in the U.S.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  20. Billy Barty

    Pardon me while I go make some water.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  21. michael

    Anyone stupid enough to pay Martin Riese anything for water deserves to be ripped off. I had no idea that people in America were so arrograntly self-centered and pathetic.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  22. Girl

    I LOVE this idea! As someone who drinks only water, I've always wondered about the different tastes. It would be fun to sample them.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Ryan

      you forgot to add blonde in front of your name.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫


        August 20, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  23. Thinks2010

    I think if you live in an area with great water, this would seem like no big deal and even a little stupid. However, if you live in a lot of places in this country where the water is so-so to disgusting, this would be a fun idea. I was lucky enough to grow up in a city supplied with wonderful spring water and with water from high mountain snow melt. Naturally carbonated mineral water was also available so this sort of thing would be no big deal though it might be a fun, trendy fad. I also lived a few years in areas of my state and of the country where the tap water was, in my opinion, disgusting though people born and raised there saw nothing wrong with it. I also traveled to countries where I would not drink tap water, cook with it, or brush my teeth with it, as well as a couple where I did not even like the idea of bathing in it. I can understand how something like this would be a great thing if you live in an area with so-so water or crappy water.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Carbonated water tastes like shi*

      August 20, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  24. edaf

    This is really funny. Several years ago, Penn & Teller did a whole skit about a water list and a water sommelier. They had lots of bottles with different labels and alleged origins, although all the water came from the local municipal water supply. The customers were all oohing and ahhing over the different tastes, and agreeing about that the differences were substantial. Then Penn Gillette came out and said what a hoax it was and it was "Just Water, People!" So, I guess, we now are in a world where comedy and satire are becoming reality.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  25. eric

    Holy stupid, humans. Who would pay $.01 for water? Only suckers, that's who.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • JosephS

      You don't have a water bill? Everyone pays for water – even tap water.

      August 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  26. Phil

    Definition of ELEMENT

    a : any of the four substances air, water, fire, and earth formerly believed to compose the physical universe

    Several of you keep trying to correct the author. Shut up already.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • dave

      I'll bet you think when you get sick it's because the amount of blood, yellow bile, black bile, or phlegm in your body is out of balance. Some of us don't cling to millenia old definitions.

      August 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • Phil

        I guess you don't cling to magic either. Silly human

        August 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • ORChuck

      Even if we go with this rather - how shall we say this? - limited and dated definition, the fact is that the stuff that comes out of your tap our pours out of just about any bottle that most of will ever get to drink from is water with some earth and air elements in it.

      If you want pure water, you can buy it as a laboratory reagent. It's about $350 per gal.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  27. Cyprustree

    When I lived in other cities, I did drink water directly from the tap – water from Bull Run is some of the best in the world. Only other water that was as good was in Chamonix, France. But when I bought my home, the city where I live now gets water from a different source and I could definitely tell the difference. There's an aftertaste that Bull Run water doesn't have. So I drink bottled water now, no aftertaste.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  28. the dude


    lets get technical.

    Water is not an element, in the sense that hydrogen is an element. – each atom gets a spot on the periodic table of elements.... THOSE are the elements.

    Water is a molecule... it is a combination of H2O- and a few variants for heavy water and isotopes and what not.

    now in a classical sense, air earth fire water,,, which are not elements... they can be considered elements... but seriously,,, that classification system went out with zeus...

    that is all – carry on.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • RichardHead

      Water is a Commodity-and will be controlled by the Corporations with the most Money. End of Story.

      August 19, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • Phil

      Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

      August 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • fallen angel

      Do you like fumunda cheese? the cheese fumunda my b@lls.

      August 19, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • fallen angel

      Do you like fumunda cheese? the cheese fumunda my b%lls

      August 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Barnacle Bill, the sailor

      Earth, Wind & Fire...

      'nuff said.

      August 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  29. SixDegrees

    The words "pretentious snob" fairly leap to mind here.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  30. grant

    all bottled water is a racket. its a testament to stupid people. unless you live in rural Sierra Leone, the water you have at your disposal is just fine.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • M.E.

      Have you ever been to Mexico? Not fine at all. There's plenty of 2nd world countries where you'd be wise to avoid the local spigot too.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  31. Joe

    "Kirkland Signature". There, now you don't have to buy the book and I saved you hundreds of dollars trying the others. I'm on my third bottle of Costco 2013 today and have a water buzz. Nothing beats it's cool, refreshing flavor. $3.25 for 35 bottles. Be a winner.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • clambert506

      Walmart Spring Water. 64 cents a gallon in my area. NEXT!

      August 19, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  32. FoodPerestroika

    Martin Riese may be the only water sommelier in the US at the moment, but he's certainly not the first. Alain Ducasse at the Essex House had a water sommelier years ago.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  33. TLORop

    Water should be filtered and free.

    August 19, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  34. Bolaji

    What-a menu!

    August 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  35. dave

    Herr Riese, please stop referring to water as an "element." Water, mein freund, is a molecule.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • dave

      Also, the EPA's secondary drinking water standards list the MCL (maximum contaminant level) for TDS as 500 mg/L. So that 3,500 is seven times as contaminated as the maximum standard promulgated by the EPA. No thanks.

      August 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  36. M.E.

    I heard about this years ago while working in a wine store. I thought it was a bit crazy then and I still think it is. Tasting is an entirely subjective and deeply inaccurate matter, as has been proven with wine. However, there is generally one born every minute, and if they want to pay for it, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. It's just the forces of the market in action and it isn't illegal to set any price you want for a bottle of water. In one of the stores I worked at, we also carried a hefty selection of water and some of those retailed at $15-20, so the restaurant markup would make it easily more than that.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  37. Water water everywhere?

    Deciding which water goes with the meal is definitely a 1st-World problem.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • ORChuck

      This is absolutely true. It is a first-world problem.... along with which salt to use, which wine to drink, etc.

      Here's the interesting question: how many years does one have to look back in American history to find no such questions in America? We've changed a lot in a short time.

      See it as arrogant. See it as silly. See it as wasteful. Or see it as an indicator of American progress.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  38. Billy Batts


    August 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  39. Roger

    At first glance I thought of anyone who would pay to taste "waters" is a fool, but hell, I still pay for cable television!

    August 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  40. Dan

    Penn and Teller beat them to it by years.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  41. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Best water on the planet is out of my parent's faucet. Alaskan ground water well put through a water softening system, though it really isn't needed.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  42. Joe

    Simply ri-goddamn-diculous.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  43. Samsonite_I was_way_off

    I have some money; please burn it for me.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Here's an IOU for $250,000. Might want to hold on to that one.

      August 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  44. nesued

    poor writing/fact-checking/research. There are only 42 pages in the water tasting menu and no water is priced over $20. Perhaps the $42 came from the number of pages??? Likely, since the last water on the menu is list as starting on page 42.....

    August 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • nesued

      Kudos CNN. You read my comments above and corrected the referenced components.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  45. Dave

    I'll take a domestic, locally grown.

    August 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  46. Jim Canes

    I like my water at about 1680 TDS/Liter. Although, when the mood strikes, I'd sometimes grab a 3 grander.

    August 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  47. anony

    HBO's BullS#! did an episode on this where some dude in the back was filling wine bottles with Hose water. Everyone in that restaurant were fooled.. In other words, don't waste your money folks!! ^_^

    August 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • eric

      I was never fooled and never will be. Paying for water, only city suckers do that and other clueless trolls.... (the world is at least 80% of the "dim" variety.

      August 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  48. 1st!

    Heh heh heh.

    August 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Dave

      Shine your glory on me!

      August 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
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