Thursday, November 3, 2016

Coming up for water, one more time

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-3-16-00-pmEvery few years, the topic of water pops up in this column. Yes, water.

The latest nudge came in a story posted today on, titled "A Sommelier for Water? Seven Ways Somms Are Moving Past Wine."

Attention Bloomberg people. That is not a new topic. I wrote one of the first stories about America's first water sommelier back in the summer of 2002. That was after I visited with Filip Wretman, who was new to that role while employed at the Battery Park Ritz-Carlton hotel in lower Manhattan.

That same year, the topic popped up in various other incarnations. For example, The New York Times ran a piece on Wretman it headlined "Where Ice Water Is an Insult, and Tap Is a Disgrace." Hotel Online published a syndicated story that also credited Wretman with being the trailblazer.

Between then and now, the topic and various sommelier's names have occasionally been in the media. In 2013, for example, the author of The Food Writer's Diary published in Nation's Restaurant News alluded to the first time he "heard about" Wretman was "11 years ago," which would have put in it 2002, when the original stories were published. Then last year the Eater website ran an interview with "America's only water sommelier," a German expat named Martin Riese who plies his trade in Los Angeles, that sounded suspiciously close to crediting him with creating that role in the U.S. Perhaps they were influenced by Newsweek, which in 2014 did precisely that in an interview with Riese it titled "A 44-page Water Menu from America's First 'Water Sommelier'."

Here's a slightly abridged version of my original story, about America's real first water sommelier:


NEW YORK — Some of the best water in the city comes out of the tap, straight from reservoirs in the Catskills. Anyone can show you where to get it.
Some of the most expensive comes in bottles, straight from places such as France, Sweden, Fiji, Italy, Norway, Canada, Scotland and various U.S. states. Your friendly water sommelier can suggest which to choose.

Well, he can if you’re dining at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel in Battery Park. The management says they have the only such person in the world.

His name is Filip Wretman. He’s 26, a diminutive, GQ-slim Swede who came to the United States via various peaks and islands.

Wretman, son of the prominent Swedish restaurateur/chef/writer Tore Wretman, openly concedes he did not set out to be a water expert, much less the first water sommelier. He studied the hospitality business at the Les Roches hotel school in Switzerland, and worked in the Swiss Alps, the Philippines and St. Bart’s in the Caribbean before coming to Manhattan as bar manager at the Ian Schrager chain’s trendy Hudson Hotel, near Columbus Circle.

So, how much did Wretman know about water when the Ritz-Carlton decided to get serious about its offerings at the new hotel, which opened in January after being delayed in the aftermath of 9/11?

“Not much more than anyone else,” Wretman said with disarming honesty during a private water tasting.

He said he spoke to numerous vendors and spent a lot of Internet research time getting to know more about the burgeoning business of bottled water, a hit in many countries but particularly booming in the United States.

Wretman’s research and tastings did more than simply acquaint him with the numerous brands of bottled water anyone can find in local supermarkets -- brands such as Fiji, San Pellegrino, Evian, Aquafina, Acqua Della Madonna, Dasani, Deer Park, Poland Spring and on and on for 1,800 or so brands worldwide, including such familiar Capital Region brands as Saratoga, Diamond Spring and Vermont Pure.

His studies made him comfortable selecting and suggesting a range of still and sparking waters that make ideal accompaniments for cheeses, certain sauces, spicy or mild dishes, sweet or salty offerings, desserts and the like.

Some might think having an in-house water expert is merely a high-end hotel’s contrivance or a gimmick to sell bottles of high-priced waters. Contrivance, perhaps, but not a particularly expensive one. At the Ritz-Carlton, you can try as many waters as you like at just $5 a head, less than the price of a cocktail.

“We really see it as part of our mission of providing comfort and gracious living to all our visitors, whether they’re overnight guests or not,” says Nikheel Advani, the hotel’s food and beverage director.

The Ritz-Carlton’s goal at Battery Park, Advani notes, is to make it “a center of comfort and tranquillity in a rebuilt city.” Wretman keeps a dozen or so waters on hand, but can come up with virtually any brand a visitor requests with at least 24 hours notice. After all, the Ritz-Carlton chain prides itself on catering to visitors’ every whim. It even has a bath butler who creates various bathwater concoctions designed to refresh, soothe and pamper guests. …

How does a water expert compare the art of recommending waters to that of recommending wines?

“Wine is a world of its own,” Wretman said. “You can recommend much more specifically. With water, we didn’t want to treat this in a way that would make people think of it as a hoax. But, it is quite true that different waters will have different impacts on the palate. They can help you recover the tastes of other foods after eating chocolates, cheeses, and so on … With those sorts of food courses we would suggest a sparkling water to clear the palate.”

Perrier, a familiar name to American consumers, is one such sparkler recommended for cleansing because of its large natural bubbles, Wretman says. San Pellegrino, on the other hand, has tiny bubbles and a high mineral content, giving it a more distinctive taste that would work well with salty or very spicy dishes. Fiji is very light, with a high silica content that complements meat and game without interfering with their juices.

What about the ice cubes in drinks?

“New York tap water,” Wretman confided with a slight smile. “Maybe someday we’ll have that kind of demand for specialty ice cubes, but we’re certainly not at that stage today.”

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