Mineral water manifesto

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Water, water everywhere

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.

The Morning File has a new hero. He's Giles Coren, a restaurant critic for The Times of London, who has taken a low-tolerance stand on the increasingly annoying and pervasive dining opener: "Would you prefer sparkling or still water?"

Giles is mad as hell, and if the server doesn't offer tap water before pushing expensive bottled water that likely comes from a tap anyway, a restaurant will get a zero in one of four rating categories. What's more, the bottled water has to be domestic, not flown in from, say, Fiji.

Here's part of Mr. Coren's manifesto:

"Mineral water is a preposterous vanity. It is flown and shipped around the world, from France and Norway at best, from Japan and Fiji at worst. It is bottled in glass that is mostly thrown away and is stupidly heavy to freight, or in plastic which never, ever decomposes and just goes to landfill or ends up in one of the 'plastic patches' the size of Texas currently gyring in our oceans. The vanity of it!

"While half the world dies of thirst or puts up with water you wouldn't piss in, or already have, we have invested years and years, and vast amounts of money, into an ingenious system which cleanses water of all the nasties that most other humans and animals have always had to put up with, and delivers it, dirt-cheap, to our homes and workplaces in pipes, which we can access at a tap. And yet last year we bought three billion liters of bottled water . . .

"From the restaurants' point of view it is just a clipping system. It's more free money. The mark-ups are bigger even than they are on wine."

We'd recommend a 1999 New Jersey

Did Giles mention wine? A few years ago, the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Manhattan had -- no kidding here -- a water sommelier. The man, who was assistant beverage manager, briefed dinner guests on water choices just as the wine steward offered opinions about Cabernets. While he didn't go as far as to say this water goes with that dish, he did suggest that saucy but understated flat waters worked best with wine and most main courses, while piquant but playful sparklings enhanced a strongly flavored main course or dessert.

For fun, The Record of Hackensack, N.J., offered the water sommelier three varieties of Jersey tap water for sniffing, including some from the Bergen County Jail, which, as we understand it, had an aggressive bite and a captivating aroma.

Da problem with Dasani

From the AP

In 2004, Coca-Cola launched Dasani in Britain, well after the "pure" bottled water had established itself in the United States. It wasn't long before illegal levels of bromate, which can increase the risk of cancer, were found in it. When it later came out that the water was from the Thames, the outrage intensified. So it was pulled from stores, and plans were canceled to market Dasani elsewhere in Europe, which remains Dasani-free.

"In the USA, it is the bottled-water market's second-most-popular drink," London's Independent newspaper observed. "Which goes to show we may have a special relationship with America, but there's a lot of clear blue water between us."

It's probably from the tap, folks

Last week, David Lazarus wrote a series of columns for sfgate.com on the bottled water business. He says most Americans are probably unaware that Dasani, like many bottled waters, doesn't originate in pristine mountain springs but comes from the same pipes that run into your kitchen. Dasani undergoes a filtering process and, according to Coke, is "enhanced with minerals for a pure, fresh taste." But, in the end, it's still tap water, says Mr. Lazarus. Consumers typically say bottled water tastes better than tap water. But a series of well-publicized taste tests have shown that tap water nationwide compares favorably with most bottled waters.

In 2005, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission held a blind taste test. The 300 participants were offered samples of two popular bottled-water brands and local tap water. Half said they preferred the tap water. Twenty-five percent picked bottled water. And 25 percent said they couldn't tell the difference.

Fiji: a steal at $11 a gallon

Since it was introduced in the United States 10 years ago, Fiji has established itself as the Mercedes of bottled waters, a favorite of celebrities and, increasingly, ordinary consumers. In London a few months ago, an hour before she was due to be interviewed, diva Janet Jackson demanded that cold Fijian water be flown in. It's also gained cachet from popular movies and TV shows, including "Desperate Housewives," "Entourage" and "Sex and the City." Fiji's genius: package design and upscale exotic appeal -- it actually is flown in from the far-off resort island. Which is nice, but, as Mr. Coren said, an environmental atrocity, considering the fuel needed to ship something as heavy as water from so far. Fiji costs about $11 a gallon -- five times the cost of gasoline. With much of the world facing drought conditions, will the oil wars eventually give way to water wars?

Contact us at pleo@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1112 or Portfolio, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.


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