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Inside the Very Real (And Very Complicated) World of Luxury Water Collectors

by TopBusinessView

We finished with a grand finale: food pairings. First a nibble of dark, Mexican-style chocolate, then a sip of Vichy Catalan. The grainy chocolate blended with the earthy notes of the water to create a sharp, limestone-like flavor that, to my surprise, lightened the initial weighty kick of salt I remembered from earlier. Then we discussed the subtle differences in flavor the chocolate brought out of the other four waters. At times it felt like we were splitting hairs, but I was, after all, only pretending to be a water sommelier. Maybe my palate was simply too unsophisticated. 

As I took sip after sip, I couldn’t help but think about the journey this water had taken to arrive at my apartment. While I sat in front of my computer, sipping and sloshing, trying to determine which had more calcium. It had come out of a spring, been bottled, labeled, shipped to the US, processed, stored, and finally shipped once again to me.

The environmental impact of all of this was something I couldn’t ignore. As a resource, water is becoming more precious every year. In the face of global warming and rampant water inequity, it feels almost irresponsible to ship water across the world to taste its minerality. The aforementioned iceberg water shocked me most: a genre of bottled water sourced, yes, from icebergs. These $300 bottles are priced at a premium, and though they’re apparently sourced ethically (the company says it only takes small pieces of ice that have already broken off from icebergs, and that would otherwise melt into the sea), drinking incredibly pure iceberg water feels like a threshold of luxury that maybe we don’t need to cross. 

To Mascha, other, more pressing factors contribute to water scarcity around the globe. “This is much better addressed with you know agriculture, runoffs and and all those kinds of things,” he said. Bottled water, he said, is really a drop in the bucket. That’s a relative term, but while plastic water bottles have long been known as an environmental scourge, research shows that the glass bottles favored by most fine waters aren’t very eco-conscious either, though the water industry certainly pales in comparison to areas like mining and agriculture in terms of carbon emissions. Barrak-Barber had reservations about fine waters’ impact on the environment. “Environmentalism is something I struggle with as a water sommelier,” she said. She doesn’t drink out of single-use plastic water bottles, and she treats these waters as she would wine, only drinking them as a treat or on special occasions. On the other hand, she said, people import soda, kombucha, and wines from all over the world and no one bats an eye. Why should water get such scrutiny? 

Exploring the wide, weird, wet world of fine water was confusing, to say the least. I had been sure that all waters were created equal, but my original skepticism was dismissed after my first few sips of heavily salinated Vichy water; I have no doubt that mineral waters can have a distinct taste and texture. But the more I learned, the more I still found myself asking: Is water really worth all of this rigamarole?  

We’re determined to see water as unspecial, even if it’s been carefully protected and sourced for generations the same way wine, caviar, or coffee is. The world of fine water is an interesting case study in the way that a food item gains value: so much of that value is based on presentation and narrative—fancy-looking bottles or an interesting story behind a label can drive up its price. And it holds an interesting tension: because it’s common, oftentimes cheap, and for the most part widely available, scrutinizing it as a luxury seems reserved for the ultra elite, or at least the fairly comfortable. You’ve got to have enough boxes in your life checked if you’re spending this much time thinking about your water. (When I emailed water sommeliers asking how much their income was, they didn’t give me exact figures, though Mascha said he was glad he “had some technology companies/equity in the ’90s” to support his work. Barrak-Barber told me she doesn’t know of any certified water sommeliers who make a full-time living from the practice.) 

“Are you having as much fun as I am?” Ungar asked me excitedly during my water tasting. “Ask me whatever you want,” Barrak-Barber gushed, mid-interview. “I’m just happy to have somebody that wants to listen!” I could feel myself getting sucked into their enthusiasm vortexes. Their excitement was infectious, and each interview left me knee-deep in new information.

Fine waters are made exceptional in the same way everything else is: a community of people find themselves captivated by it, and absolutely nerd out together. Just as a wine-obsessive will regale you with trivia about Rioja’s rainfall year by year, water enthusiasts will happily chat about the way magnesium sits on the tongue for hours. The three weeks I spent immersed in fine waters were a gentle reminder that everything deserves attention—everything deserves care. And care doesn’t have to mean buying an expensive, imported bottle of water. It means taking a sip of any water and bringing all of your focus into that moment, imbuing it with meaning that it doesn’t typically get. It means spending ten minutes discussing the miraculously refreshing power of tiny bubbles each time your boyfriend opens a new bottle of Gerolsteiner. It’s all ordinary. And it’s all special. Even, it seems, water.

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