Philadelphia Daily News: NECTAR OF THE GODS

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Daily News on July 20, 2007.  The article is reprinted solely for educational purposes.  It is intended to offer insight into the history of wine education in Philadelphia, and our place within that context. 




THE NEXT BEST thing to an original idea is one that’s good enough to steal.

So, when I read about New York City’s effort to cajole people into drinking Big Apple tap water instead of bottled, I thought: Hey! Why not here?
Eau de tap costs less – 49 cents a year for eight glasses a day versus about $1,400 for bottled, the New York Times said. And it spares Planet Earth from being choked by plastic bottles.

But will tap placate our palates, I wondered? Although Philly wooter recently got honorable mention in a national taste test – besting 78 other locales – will it compare to its packaged counterpart?

Can people really tell the difference?

So I packed a cooler for a taste test, with New Jersey tap chilled in an empty seltzer bottle; Philly tap, given the same treatment; a bottle of Poland Spring that cost less than $2; and a bottle of 10 Thousand BC “100 percent natural Canadian glacier water,” which sells at the Water Works restaurant for – brace yourself – $22 a bottle.

“Locked in an icy vault for over 10,000 years, this water comes from the remote and sheltered Coastal Glacier Range that literally vibrates with the rich fragrance of health and vitality,” the bottle says. I vibrated just thinking about it. Could experts really pick it out? Could they even discern spigot from store-bought?

I set out to find out. My first stop was the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, where I met the man responsible for the city’s drinking water: Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds. Neukrug is a highly regarded civil servant who’s been with the department since 1978. He drinks Philly tap – of course. We sat in an alcove in the catacomb-like museum of the Water Works and he sipped the choices from numbered plastic cups I provided.

“Definitely a tap water,” he said after sampling glass number one. “It has a familiar taste.” It was Jersey tap. Would the master mistake it for his own?
“Also a fine quality water, this is tap also,” he said of glass number two – Philly tap, indeed. In the end, Neukrug got everything right.

He was the only one.

Ever since he founded the Philadelphia Wine School in 2001, Keith Wallace has offered pitchers of tap water to his students during class.
People were put off, so he finally yielded to pressure a few months ago and began putting out Deer Park instead.¬†Still, he raves about Philly tap, especially compared to the water in his hometown of Boston “which turns brown when you freeze it.”¬†Ick.

“Hmmm,” he said, holding the stem of the wine glasses he provided and chewing the water, glass by glass. He cleansed his palate with seltzer – a suggestion of his I offered at the tastings. “There’s something weird about this,” he said of glass number four, the $22 drink.

The taste reminded him of an episode years ago when he drank a glass that had previously been used for bleach.
“It definitely has that flavor,” he said.

Well, Wallace may know his wine, but not his water. He got everything wrong – mistaking tap for bottle and identifying the glacier as Jersey tap.

If there’s anyone who can convince you it’s not obscene to spend as much money on bottled water as some families spend on weekly groceries, it’s Leonidas Agorastos. He’s a partner in the Water Works Restaurant and Lounge – which offers 38 choices of “fine water,” the second-largest restaurant water menu in the world – and selects the wine and water for his establishment.

Things didn’t begin well, as he scoffed at the numbered water tumblers I lugged into the restaurant, providing his own stemmed glasses instead.
I braced myself for a chilly encounter with a pretentious snob. But he turned out to be charming and informative.

Yes, most of his customers drink bottled water. The most popular? A $13 bottle of Tasmanian Rain – unprocessed rain from the Australian island.
The $22 glacier water is the menu’s second most expensive. For $50, you can order Bling H2O “Museum Edition,” with hand-applied Swarovski crystals on the bottle.

Talk about heartburn.

Agorastos held the glasses up to the light and swirled, looking for telltale “legs” left by the minerals in bottled water as it settles.
He easily identified both taps: no legs. But as for the glacier water I’d bought there the day before? He identified it as glass No. 3 – the Poland Spring. And vice versa. (He later claimed I hadn’t really offered him the glacier water. But, indeed, I had.)

Michael Nutter, the city’s probable future mayor – who, astrologically speaking, was born under a water sign – took the test in my office.
He grimaced at the glacier water. He identified it as Jersey tap and Jersey tap as Poland Spring. In fact, the only one he got right was Philly tap.

“That’s all that matters,” he said with relief.

I did dismally, too, in a test administered by my husband. I discerned the tap from the bottled but thought Philly was Jersey and Poland Spring was the high-priced drink. The best-tasting of all for me? A toss-up between Poland Spring . . . and bottled Philly tap, which the city gives out at the Water Works museum and at special events.

It goes through an extra process at the bottling plant to extend its shelf life, Neukrug said. To eliminate the ecological impact, he recommended reusing the bottle. And YES, YOU CAN. The dire warnings about carcinogens leaching from the plastic if the bottle is reused is nothing more than an urban legend.

Nutter said the city can’t legally compete with private industry, but if he’s elected he would consider engaging a third party to bottle and sell our tap water
“It would be a new source of revenue – and I love revenue,” he said.

I’ll drink to that.

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