By Ian Centrone
July 02, 2019
Courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach

These days, it seems wine sommeliers are a dime a dozen. Of course, a truly gifted connoisseur with years of experience can be an invaluable asset to any fine dining establishment. But the idea of employing an in-house wine expert to elevate the dining experience is nothing groundbreaking.

The typical job description of a professional sommelier is to educate patrons about different varietals, recommend perfectly-paired bottles to accompany any dish, and curate the restaurant’s wine list (among many other things). But when I learned the hotel I was visiting boasted a water sommelier who was organizing a customized water tasting, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.

Jessica Altieri began a successful career as a professional wine sommelier who developed a wine-centric digital media network, launched a podcast, and even wrote a book all about vino. But soon after, she found herself craving new challenges and before long, she decided to expand her expertise beyond the world of wine. She enrolled at the prestigious Doemens Academy in Germany, and earned her certification from their Water Sommelier program — one of the world’s leading curriculums.

The native Chicagoan now works at Florie’s, the new bar and restaurant opened in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Mauro Colagreco (the same man behind Mirazur in France, the current best restaurant in the world). A nod to its Floridian roots, Florie’s is housed within the sophisticated Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, which recently reopened following a multi-million dollar renovation. Altieri’s appointment marked the very first water sommelier ever hired by the iconic brand. And by the looks of it, she certainly won’t be the last.

I was admittedly a bit skeptical as our group sat down for a water tasting with Altieri. I studied the various labels wrapped around the collection of glass water bottles that lined the table. Each a different size and shape, they came from all over the world. Altieri entered the room, as effervescent as a bottle of sparkling Perrier, and eloquently began explaining that not all water is created equal.

Much like wine, different regions and terroirs have significant effects on the subtle flavor nuances that come through in each bottle. For example, a bottle of Vichy Catalan mineral water from Spain is extremely complex with an almost neutral pH balance, enabling it to pair well with the rustic, rural cuisines found in many European countries. Meanwhile, the crisp, clean water inside a bottle of Svalbarði is harvested from icebergs in the remote fjords surrounding a far-flung Norwegian archipelago. Its low minerality makes it a classic match for fresh oysters or steamed lobster because it complements the refinement of each dish without overpowering the flavors.

The more she explained, the more it all made perfect sense. By the end of the demonstration, I could actually taste the differences between each of the bottles. In fact, all of the participants were able to pick up on distinct characteristics, the same way a pinot noir would differ from a Montepulciano, despite the fact that they’re both reds. As my skepticism vanished, it quickly became clear this wasn’t some ridiculous or elitist marketing gimmick — the concept was legitimate.

“My goal is to make consumers feel comfortable and educate them so they understand the health benefits of water, and to learn that water is more than just water,” says Altieri. You don’t need to have a fancy palate to taste the difference. Education is the key to helping consumers understand water is more than just something you sip when you’re thirsty.”

Altieri isn’t the only water sommelier causing a stir in the hospitality industry. Martin Riese is widely recognized as America’s first professional water sommelier, and has made headlines for years. Born and raised in Germany, Riese began his career as an apprentice at the Relais & Châteaux Hotel Stadt Hamburg before earning his certification as a Mineral Water Sommelier from the German Mineral Water Trade Association. Since then, he has become one of the world’s leading water authorities, developing his signature water program at numerous establishments around the world, such as Germany’s Hotel Palace Berlin, Ray’s & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Petit Ermitage Hotel in West Hollywood, and many more.

“Yes, my core duty is creating water menus and suggesting the perfect water to fit my guests’ lifestyles, but I think there is a way bigger picture,” says Riese. “Water is the number one consumed beverage in America and the most important liquid on the planet. I think it’s extremely important that we all rethink our use of water,” he continues. “The more water sommeliers there are, the better it is for the planet.”

Although the role of the water sommelier is still in its infancy, it’s undeniably on the rise with more and more popping up in hotels all over the globe. John Zhu has become one of Asia’s top water sommeliers after launching a career at the five-star Park Hyatt Shanghai. In Switzerland, guests flock to Grand Hotel Bad Ragaz because of the property’s access to the healing waters of an on-site spring. There, Irina Taculina serves as the in-house water sommelier, leading tastings at the designated water bar, which is part of the hotel’s award-winning spa. And Jason Kuok has built a reputation as the first and only certified water sommelier in Hong Kong and Macau. Also trained at the Doemens Academy, he founded Aqueduct in 2016 as a consultancy that helps clients in the hospitality and events space develop their water programming, ultimately fostering the same universal philosophy that “water is not just water.”

So how does one pursue a career in this unconventional but up-and-coming field? A solid education is a good place to start. Dr. Peter Schropp is currently the managing director of the Water Sommelier Union and face behind the Water Sommelier program at Doemens Academy.

“The first course started in 2011,” says Dr. Schropp. “I had the idea to start a program to educate people about the great variety of water, especially of natural mineral water and spring water.” The certification course lasts two weeks and costs approximately $2,500 to enroll. A schedule of their upcoming international water sommelier programs can be found on their website.

But the Doemens Academy isn’t the only option available to hopeful students. People interested in learning more can “join us at the Fine Water Academy to become a certified water sommelier,” according to Riese. “My podcast (Planet Water - The H2Know Podcast with Martin Riese) is also available pretty much everywhere and as a video on YouTube.” Purelogica Academy offers another renowned training program based out of China.

The experts agree that the future looks bright for those who specialize in this fascinating field. “I think that the role of a water sommelier will continue to grow in demand, because more and more people want to avoid alcohol and seek after a healthy way of living,” according to Dr. Schropp. Altieri can’t help but agree. “I definitely think there will be a surge in water sommeliers,” she predicts. “But it will take time, just as it took time to see the rise of wine sommeliers.”

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But for those who are seriously considering making the career switch into this niche specialty, she offers some sage advice. “Listen to your gut and follow your passion. There will be many people who will not understand what you’re doing or why. I get that every day,” she says. “But if you truly believe in it, your passion will show and people will feed off of your enthusiasm.”

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