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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Taste Greg Atkinson

The Quest To Refresh

On the dining circuit, local bottled water has yet to make a splash

Trend-setting West Coast chefs, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, have been calling attention to local foods for decades. And our world-class wines have gradually earned their rightful place beside European imports. But even as the "locavore" movement has usurped the organic-food movement as the trend to watch, something seems to have been overlooked in the quest to serve the most regional fare.

Tilth restaurant in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood is one of only two restaurants in the nation to have earned Oregon Tilth organic certification. Tilth touts its use of local sources for everything from meat to produce. But when customers ask for bottled water, they get Panna or Pellegrino from Italy.

And that's not unusual. Many restaurants dedicated to serving local fare cater to clients' expectations by pouring premium imported water. Chez Panisse, the Berkeley Mecca of all things local and sustainable, has been working to develop a more sustainable sparkling-water program involving purified water infused in house with CO2, but according to general manager Mike Kossa-Rienzi, problems with the in-house system kept them pouring San Benedetto, a classy aqua minerale from Italy, for months after they planned the switch.

But why, one wonders, would restaurants that pride themselves on serving local food and pouring local wine, pour imported bottled water to begin with?

I can tell you why I did it. I first started thinking seriously about local fare in the 1980s, when I was a chef in Friday Harbor. I bought exclusively local produce and seafood, and I was really happy when my distributor started carrying TalkingRain, a bottled water drawn from a mountain spring in Washington near Preston, where the water flows underground from its icy creek source directly into the bottling facility. I was proud to pour a local product.

In the '90s, when I became executive chef at Canlis restaurant in Seattle, I steered the kitchen toward more local and sustainable foods, but I pushed for Pellegrino and Panna in the dining room. I thought the graceful glass bottles evoked the elegant context in which I wanted to frame my food. The TalkingRain, in its squat, folksy-looking bottle, just didn't look quite right with the fine linens and candlelight. Perhaps I was getting snooty.

Chef proprietor John Sundstrom shared similar thoughts about why he pours Lurisa bottled water at his Seattle restaurant, Lark. "I think a certain level of dining demands a certain class of bottled water, and when we tasted waters for the restaurant, we liked this one best." But Sundstrom, an avid supporter of local foods, admits they don't push the water. "I have concerns about the waste involved with the bottles, and with shipping something halfway around the world. I suppose we could just filter our own tap water," he mused. Except water from a faucet lacks the cachet of fancy bottled water.

Of course, a lot of bottled water is essentially water from a faucet. Beverage giant Pepsi told CNN in July that it would soon modify labels on its Aquafina brand to clarify that it is simply bottled tap water. And while Coca-Cola freely admits that its own Dasani brand is bottled from public water supplies, it has no intention of changing its labels. Nestlé, the world's largest bottled-water company with more than a billion dollars in bottled-water sales in the U.S. alone, boasts more than 20 brands including Panna, Pellegrino, Perrier, Calistoga, Arrowhead and Polish Springs. Each is drawn from a different source, some natural springs, others municipal water supplies.

Seattle's own municipal supply was established when voters approved the Cedar River system shortly after the great fire in 1889. That was an era when cities all over the country were consolidating private water systems into larger, more efficient, publicly funded systems.

In the mid-20th century, cities started adding fluoride to their water, because fluoride was shown to prevent tooth decay. Most water systems also add chlorine because it prevents the growth of bacteria. The EPA insists that water systems test for harmful pathogens, and limits are established for those, but no national standards exist for water treatment, or for levels of additives such as fluoride and chlorine. So for discriminating diners and guzzlers of water on the go, tap water can taste less than ideal.

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Perhaps that's why Americans consume more than 7 million gallons of bottled water every year, making our nation the largest market for bottled water in the world. And because bottled drinking water is classified as a food, the Food and Drug Administration oversees its production, establishing strict "Standards of Identity" for specific types of bottled water.

So how, in terms codified by the FDA, does our local TalkingRain stack up next to the competition? "Naturally sparkling water" contains carbon dioxide in the exact ratio that it did when it was drawn out of the Earth. "Mineral water" must contain at least 250 parts per million dissolved solids, and must be drawn from a geologically protected underground water source. "Purified water" has been subjected to distillation or some other process to remove minerals and other solids.

TalkingRain Sparkling Essence doesn't claim to be "naturally sparkling," just carbonated. And, with its relatively low mineral content, TalkingRain is not mineral water. TalkingRain is purified with filters and ultraviolet light to ensure purity, but it's not marketed as purified water. Essentially, it's just what it claims to be — natural, local spring water, ideal for putting local flavor in the water glass free of chlorine or other off-putting flavors. Now, if they would just do something about that bottle . . .

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

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