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In Defense of Fancy Bottled Water

Jesus impressed his disciples by turning water into wine. Water sommelier Michael Mascha thinks water is miraculous enough.

Supermarket shelves are stacked floor to ceiling with bottles of water, most of which comes from a tap, just like the one you have at your kitchen sink. So why are we paying for it? Because, at least according to Michael Mascha, the author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, we don't know any better. Your standard filtered stuff-anything that says "purified" on the label-is made by big companies like Coke (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina) and is incredibly wasteful to buy and horribly unexciting to drink.You can get Dasani-quality water from your tap, but what you can't get is water that's been in the ground, untouched for 10,000 years, with a natural effervescence, mineral content that rivals a multivitamin, and a natural "terroir"-the unique combination of soil and climate that influences the flavor of anything that comes out of it. That, Mascha says, is worth paying for, as long as we harvest it responsibly and treat it like something to be savored, not recklessly consumed.GOOD: Why should I care what kind of bottled water I drink?MICHAEL MASCHA: What you're seeing in the marketplace is the confusion between two very different products that happen to have the same name: bottled water. One is purified tap water sold in a plastic bottle in your supermarket. Then there is real water from a natural source that also happens to be sold in a bottle. And because people are not paying enough attention, they confuse the two.G: What's wrong with drinking Aquafina, or any of the other brands packaged by major food and beverage companies and sold on supermarket shelves?MM: Don't get me wrong, Aquafina doesn't make you sick or anything-it's perfectly good drinking water. It just isn't very exciting; it's a commodity. In general in the food world, there's a trend away from commodity toward products with a natural terroir. Ten years ago, [olive] oil was oil. You went to the supermarket, you bought some oil. You now have three different kinds of olive oil at home you use for different applications. Olive oil has made the transition from being considered a commodity into being considered a product with terroir. Bottled water right now is in the same process.G: What difference does terroir make?MM: If the water is in the ground for 15,000 or 20,000 years, it has more time to absorb minerals. Water doesn't necessarily get better as it gets older, but if you have a source that was hermetically sealed for the last 7,000 years, you can be fairly sure that what's there has very little industrial pollution. If you go to Tasmania, they collect rainwater, because it has the cleanest air in the world. The geography is not only shaping the water, but also shaping the perception of what water is.G: And what is water?MM: I have a background in wine, so I talk to wine people and I talk to water people, and they're the same. They're very passionate about sourcing where the water is coming from, and about the soil, so it's basically the same idea: You have a natural product-one is wine, the other is water-and you need to protect the environment around the source, and have other people around the world share the experience you have by delivering them the water (or the wine) in bottles. It's a very similar attitude.G: Isn't this all a little overblown?MM: People laugh about water, but I also enjoy chocolate dramatically. I would contest that most Americans have never tasted chocolate, because they eat Hershey's; that's not chocolate, that's a chocolate-like substance. Real chocolate comes from a plantation, from a particular species, and follows a particular process. That's what's happening as we move from bottled water into natural foods.Photo by Will Etling

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