News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Candy J. Cooper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 4--In an elegant bar at Manhattan's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the world's only water sommelier lifts to his nose the first of three sparkling wine glasses, each filled with a different North Jersey tap water. Number one hails from a drinking fountain at the Bergen County Jail.
Filip Wretman, the fresh-faced water connoisseur, considers the jailhouse drink as if it were a $300 bottle of Lafite Rothschild. He rolls the liquid -- call it Bergendy -- around the sides of the glass. He takes a whiff, a sip, then a meaningful swallow.
"I'd say," he begins, searching his flavor vocabulary. "It's a..." He takes another swig. "It's not bad. It's sort of medium-soft. It's more on the soft side but still leaves a little mineral aspect on the teeth. It has a bit of an aftertaste, but I'm not sure how to describe it."
While New Jersey, New York, and many parts of the nation face drought emergencies, Wretman is having a pretty good time with water, developing his water palette and minding the bottled kinds for the rich and famous. The sprinklers around North Jersey may be banned, but Wretman is proof that there is no shortage of water -- as long as it can be bought in a bottle.
The Ritz, which opened in lower Manhattan last October with premium services such as butler-drawn baths, offers a menu that features six kinds of water, soon to be 12, half flat, half sparkling. There's all-you-can-drink for a flat $5 fee. No $45 water tab here.
Got a hankering, as a Swedish guest did recently, for a swig of water from another continent? No problem. The hotel promises to bring in just about any water in the world -- with 48 hours notice. But don't think of tossing any old ice cubes into that glass. Those can be frozen in your favorite variety.
At the hotel's restaurant, Wretman briefs dinner guests on their water choices just as the wine steward offers his opinions about Bordeaux. He won't insist that this water go with that dish. But he will suggest that flat waters pair best with a main course and wine, sparklings with a strongly flavored main course or dessert. Do you have a bubble preference? Perrier's are fat, AcquaDella Madonna's puny and soft, he explains.
And how's business? One couple recently ordered six waters, but most Ritz patrons still focus more intently on the wine.
"A lot of people have criticized us," said Wretman, seated near a window of the Rise, the 14th-floor bar of the Ritz. "They ask us, 'Don't you think this is snobbish?' Or 'Isn't it a scam to push sales?' But I don't think it's a bit snobbish and it's not really a scam."
Wretman doesn't claim encyclopedic knowledge of H2O. He's self-taught, collecting information on bubble size, aftertaste, and mineral content from water purveyors and the Internet after the hotel's food and beverage director appointed him to be the water version of a wine steward last fall. He also serves as the hotel's assistant food and beverage manager.
During this drought of the century, the water connoisseur says offering bottled over tap is simply responsible. "Some people ask for tap," said Wretman, who rates Chateau Bloomberg highly. "Before the drought, we were happy to see that."
Proving he's no snob, Wretman gamely tasted and rated North Jersey waters. He compared the Bergendy -- the jail offering that comes from United Water -- with an Eau de Clifton and a Ridgewood Chandon against the Ritz's bottled varieties. They include the better-known Evian, Elizabeth Taylor's favorite, as well as a more elite designer water, Voss -- a "crisp, clear, and neutral" artesian water from Norway favored by Madonna and Bono, according to Wretman. It sells for $3.49 a bottle at one local gourmet market.
But on to sample number two: the Ridgewood water taken from a resident's tap, supplied from the village's wells. Wretman sips, he waits, he searches for words.
"I'd say it's a little bit oily," he declared. "That's just an impression. I hope it doesn't contain oil. I just think it's a bit softer, it leaves a little bit on the teeth that has minerals in it."
He raises the third sample to his lips, taken from the tap of Fire Station 6 in Clifton, which has been under remediation for more than 10 years to remove gasoline contamination from beneath it. The tap water is piped in from the Passaic Valley Water Commission.
"I feel like this one alone has a taste to it," he said, "a little bit earthy. Or plastic. Maybe it has more chlorine, or it's more treated. It almost reminds you of pool water."
That's no surprise to firefighters. "It does taste heavily cleaned or processed," said firefighter Brian Sieper, who prefers bottled water.
Passaic Valley Water spokesman Joe Bella said Wretman's palette was quite discerning. He tasted chlorine because, unlike the other two waters, Passaic Valley uses chlorine to disinfect. The "earthy" taste is probably due to geosimin, a naturally occurring compound that imparts an earthy or musty flavor.
"We're pretty aggressive about our disinfection," he said, adding that both tastes should disappear when a new treatment plant is completed in 2004.
Drought years are usually pretty good times for those who hawk bottled water.
"When the water tables go down as a result of drought, you get taste and odor problems. Then you'll see people go out and buy bottled water," said Jonathan Hall, publisher of the Hall Water Report, a trade newsletter.
While there is no statistical evidence the drought has pushed up sales, there are anecdotal accounts: One Jersey City water company trucked five tankers of bottled water to the middle of the state to fill a wealthy client's swimming pool.
Turning water into a chic commodity is not really new and sales of bottled water have been increasing between 8 and 11 percent a year for a decade. The first business devoted entirely to water emerged in Beverly Hills in 1985 with The Water Bar, which sank. Similar bars started and failed in San Francisco and Chicago, and finally took hold more recently in Europe, according to Arthur von Wiesenberger, a Santa Barbara-based author of four books on bottled water.
Von Wiesenberger, a consultant to the bottled water industry, is one of the world's veteran water tasters, one of the few people who owns a water cellar with a collection of about 60 brands. One hails from Bosnia, another from Tajikistan, a third from Paradise, Idaho. The most expensive is the $5 bottle of Badoit, from the Loire Valley in France.
In his view, the art of tasting water is much like the art of tasting wine. He uses words like "aggressive" and "flabby" and "wet leaves" to describe their bouquet.
Von Wiesenberger, who calls himself a "water master," founded a Web site on water and has participated in a West Virginia water tasting for 12 years. He said water "should be clear and bright and brilliant. With municipal water you can get yellows to greens to cloudiness to turbidity."
Unlike wine, there should be no aroma in water, he said. "The taste, the mouth feel, the aftertaste, the carbonation," should all be considered when judging whether a glass of water is up to snuff.
Some water purveyors make claims to health benefits, even miracles. One water from Fiji contains silica, said to be good for the skin, another from France is high in magnesium, best for constipation, a third, from Italy, is full of calcium -- good for lactose intolerant pregnant women. While sommelier Wretman, the son of a Swedish celebrity chef who trained at a hotel school in Switzerland, doesn't believe all the claims, he favors the tastes of European waters.
"U.S. waters have evolved around plastic packaging and mass consumption," he said.
Despite pictures of snow-covered mountains on a label that can deceive buyers into thinking the water comes from a mountain spring, "Many of them are not much more than refined tap water," he said. "They're very man-made products. It's like the difference between a tomato grown in your garden and one from a giant company."
But realizing his bias, Wretman is in search of a great domestic water, perhaps one from Iowa, called Colfax, which claims to be higher in mineral content than all other popularly sold bottled waters. According to a 1908 government analysis posted on its Web site, it can help in "treatment of cataract conditions."
But the Jersey samples were not too bad either, Wretman decided, offering his final ratings:
"I think I prefer this one," Wretman said, pointing to the Ridgewood sample, "it just feels smoother." Hackensack, which he called "neutral" came in second, while the Clifton firehouse ranked third.
And while none will soon be appearing on the upper-crust Ritz water menu, Wretman offered the most refined of compliments:
"If I went to a restaurant and was served any of these," he said. "none would make me shiver."
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(c) 2002, The Record, Hackensack, N.J. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.