Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

We were at lunch at Vidalia, a couple of friends and I, when the bottle arrived.

“Wow,” said Robert, and we all turned and looked at the waiter, who tilted the bottle for inspection. Only this was not wine. It was water. At least we thought it was water.

“Look at that thing,” Robert went on, taking the tall, clear cylinder and turning it as if it were a prism refracting light. “It looks like a giant bottle of cologne.”

“Or a bottle of shampoo.”

“Or like one of those pneumatic tubes. Only more stylish.”

My God, I thought, as our talk devolved into a 10-minute tangent about this thing called Voss. A bunch of clever, cynical folks, who pride themselves on being impervious to the wiles of advertising and hype, having a conversation about packaging, of all things.

Later, I contacted Nina Brondmo, a spokesperson for the Norway-based company, who pointed out that, one, our discussion was an inevitability of the genius of the design—“the bottle’s a conversation piece,” she said, adding that customers are “always asking to see if they can take it home with them to use as a vase”—and two, my friends and I had not been talking about water, because Voss is not water.

Come again?

“When we talk about our brand, it’s Voss—it’s not water. It’s an experience…a necessity for everyday life.”

Fire, air, earth…Voss?

Of course, in an age in which “Sparkling or still?” has become as standard as “How would you like that cooked?” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a mere table water should have become so fetishized.

Since first entering the D.C. market a little over two years ago, the Voss Experience is now playing at some of the most stylish restaurants in the city, including Vidalia, Ceiba, Sushi-Ko, Zola, Cafe Mozu, Signatures, David Greggory, and the new BlackSalt. The company’s aim, says Alex Eskeland, Northeast regional manager for Voss, is nothing less than to supplant the likes of San Pellegrino, Evian, and Fiji as the water of choice for high-end diners.

Says Eskeland, “We don’t have the resources of a Pellegrino, which is owned by Nestlé, or an Evian, which is operated by a big French conglomerate, so we’ve had to do things a little differently.”

This notion of the 5-year-old Voss as a plucky upstart daring to do battle with the big boys is meant to obscure the reality of a business with deep roots in the world of imagemaking. The company’s founder, Ole Christian Sandberg, is a major player in Norway’s fashion industry, the 31-year-old wunderkind behind Sophie Faroh, the high-end line of women’s clothing. One of his first moves at Voss was to enlist the services of Neil Kraft, the former creative director for Calvin Klein, to design a bottle that would be different, bold, totemic.

The fact that the Norweigan water (which is not, alas, sold in Norway) has been designated the purest water ever analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration is almost secondary to the sheer iconic power of that cylinder.

Because what Voss is really selling is not water, nor even a notion of purity, but exclusivity. “Having Voss at a restaurant,” says Eskeland, “enhances the image of that restaurant.” The “perceived value” of the Voss brand “adds to the property.”

That exclusivity is carefully tended. Voss doesn’t advertise. Nor, with very few exceptions, does it sell its water commercially; according to Eskeland, Voss has recently rejected offers from several major retail outlets to carry the water. Why? For the same reason that Voss won’t let “saloons or taverns” stock its brand. Which is the same reason that the popular kids in high school didn’t consort with the likes of you and your friends.

Brondmo concedes that it “can be delicate” explaining to chains and other not-quite-upscale-enough restaurants that Voss would prefer not to do business with them. But she and Eskeland point out that, though the practice is unheard of when it comes to selling water, it is common when it comes to selling wine. In fact, the company will allow only wine distributors to sell its cylinder to those establishments that meet its criteria.

In the D.C. area, Voss is available from a company called the Country Vintner. John Amoroso, a sales rep there, told me it’s his job to persuade the city’s top restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs that Voss, as much as 60 cents a bottle higher than its competitors, is a more valuable commodity. One of the ways he counters his clients’ “initial skepticism” is to offer incentives: Places that agree to carry Voss exclusively, as did Sushi-Ko recently, are offered substantial discounts.

But if Voss has made inroads with a certain kind of young, energetic restaurant, it has yet to find too many takers at more elite establishments. Citronelle, for one, has remained an elusive quarry. Eskeland told me it would be a “great honor” if Citronelle were to carry Voss.

Mark Slater, the sommelier at Citronelle, intimated that Voss’ longing would remain unrequited. Voss could sell itself as wine, he seemed to say, but the world is full of young, immature wines.

“I’ve had it several times. It doesn’t taste particularly good to me. I always feel bad charging people a lot of money for water, anyway.”

Besides, he said, laughing a laugh of brutal superiority, “I’ve always thought the packaging looks like a bottle of shampoo.”—Todd Kliman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.