It's 11 on a Tuesday morning, and that's not coffee in Brandon Smoot's cup.
The brew today is rosé - a vibrant, coral-colored Silenzi from Sardinia, only the first of 10 wines Smoot will swirl, smell and taste.
Smoot is a sommelier, and if it wasn't evident from the gleam in his green eyes when he talks about the techniques used to produce lesser-known orange wine, it is from the way he tastes his wine: moving his head from side to side, running the wine through his front teeth. The whole process would seem more at home at a dentist's office than a booth of upscale hotel restaurant Front Room Tavern.
But though Smoot can swirl and swish with the best of them, he's hardly standing in the corner with white gloves on. If you're imagining him in a tuxedo, don't. None of the restaurants whose wine lists he curates as wine director of hospitality management team NL Group - Front Room Tavern, Dish Preston Hollow and Dish Cedar Springs - are white tablecloth restaurants.
If you want to drink cabernet with oysters, Smoot says that's fine. The 36-year-old is a self-taught sommelier with an intellectual approach to his subject, a customer is always right ethos and the attitude of a perfectionist. His philosophy is all about simplifying a subject that is, at best, opaque and, at worst, intimidating.
"I want to come to the table, describe the wine and not be a jerk," Smoot said, elaborately swirling his mug of frothy cappuccino - this time, it is coffee - then sniffing it. "I don't want to be that person. I only want to describe things I know they can pick up on."
But even as he acknowledges that the trappings of wine culture can be off-putting - the swirling and spitting, the way menus presume a consumer's familiarity with faraway regions and individual vineyards - Smoot also wants to challenge the conception of sommelier culture as pretentious.
Anyone can be a sommelier, he says - it just takes training. Smoot doesn't claim to have a more advanced palate or sense of smell than anyone else, and he says his fellow sommeliers don't either. Sommeliers tend to get a bad rap, he says, because they're often attached to expensive restaurants and hotels.
The CEO of NL Group, Tim McEneny, disagrees.
McEneny, who's worked with sommeliers throughout his 25 years in the hospitality industry, says Smoot is an original.
"That chest-puffed-out attitude - that doesn't exist with him," said McEneny. But Smoot will still "pair the grape pretty close to perfect every time. And that's inspiring."
McEneny describes Smoot as "a cross between Forrest Gump and Rain Man," and he means that in a good way: "[Smoot] has a heart of gold, and he's smarter than most people that are ever around you. I think anybody that gets to be touched by him can be inspired and it should be a privilege."
His attitude isn't the only unusual aspect of Smoot's career. In an industry where it's common to have a familial connection to the beverage, there isn't a hint of vino in his bloodstream. Raised Mormon, though now an atheist, Smoot says, "There's no one, not even a distant relation to me that I can think of, that's even a wine aficionado, much less industry."
"Outside of NyQuil," Smoot first tasted alcohol at 21. He says he would remove the alcohol from wine, if he could. It's no coincidence that his 10 tastings on Tuesday were done by 2 p.m.: The earlier in the day he can schedule them, the better. He has other work to do.
Smoot describes his approach to wine as a quest for "solutions and connections." That means finding a wine that people with different preferences and different entrees can unite over. It also means describing the wine in an accessible way.
For Bordeaux wine Chateau Louvie '06 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, it's a distinct taste like "dirt-dusted leaves made it into the final blend."
Or it could mean "fleshy; brooding with musky peppercorn" as with one 2011 cabernet on a recent Smoot wine menu.
If you're a wine lover, Smoot's job sounds like a dream. There are as many as 10 tastings in a week, not to mention events like Pinot Camp in Oregon, with intensive days of long tours through regional wineries. But Smoot points out he's "not a socialite" because he works 90 to 100 hours a week. Much of his time is spent on less glamorous duties like stocking bottles of wine.
There's no requirement for certification to be a restaurant's resident wine expert. Smoot is certified through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a graduate of the advanced course at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and a certified specialist of wine in the Society of Wine Educators. He "absolutely" wants to be a master sommelier, of which there are only 147 in North America.
NL Group's McEneny believes "he'll achieve anything he wants to. He's got a gift."
Ultimately, Smoot says, his interest in wine isn't about the alcohol. Nor is it about the beverage's romance, history or how it all comes together. While he finds these things "captivating," Smoot says it's all decoration.
"It's this beautiful story that comes with wine, and the more you understand, the more there is, it's not a veneer at all. But it is something that's not in the glass when you're drinking it, and no amount of poetry will change that," Smoot said.
Less glamorous, but far more important, is fermentation, Smoot said.
Not the alcohol it produces, but rather the tastes the process is responsible for: When you taste raspberry or lychee or oolong tea in the glass, it's the result of fermentation taking a grape's natural tartaric acid and creating those flavors at the molecular level. Smoot describes this as "complexity that doesn't exist otherwise," or at least, outside of human invention.
That complexity can also make wine off-putting to some. To hear Smoot tell it, an encounter between a customer and a sommelier, even if short-lived, can carry its fair share of emotional baggage. An experience with a condescending or pushy sommelier can render a person forever sommelier-shy.
So when Smoot is walking up to a table, he never knows if a simple question - say, "Do you prefer wine that's fruity or that has more minerality?" - will send someone running for the hills.
"You've got to do damage control," Smoot explains. "You have to show you're a friend first. It's hard when you've just popped in."
Some people know exactly what they want, like the older gentleman on a recent Thursday who rattled off his preferences: a Riesling, "not bone dry" and on the fruity side. Nothing on the menu quite fit the bill, so Smoot steered him toward a French grape, trousseau gris, instead. The customer pronounced it "great," and the restaurant bustled on.
The wine world is "arbitrarily, historically, unnecessarily complicated," Smoot says.
His job: to make it simpler. And if you want a pairing for those oysters? He suggests the Alandra white, from Portugal.
Seven wines would pair equally well, but it's the cheapest.
By Emma Court, The Dallas Morning News
Brandon Smoot's Wine Tips
Take a chance. The best deals are inevitably not the mainstream choices - they are the neglected and undiscovered. Think back to when you first tried wine. If you want to grow your taste and enjoyment, emulate that attitude again. Be daring.
Beware of wine labels we all recognize. Vineyard production is finite and doesn't scale to match demand. Thus a winery investing heavily in marketing is forced to compromise profits, value or quality. The point is to be less afraid of unfamiliar labels than those you see on every list.
Avoid using "dry" and "sweet." If you must use them, make extra effort to communicate exactly what you mean when you say them. Nothing confuses wine drinkers more than the terminology, and no terminology is more abused, conflated and confusing than those two words. Everyone thinks they know what they mean, and they're all thinking something different.
Current great values are Portuguese whites, Canadian reds, Northeastern Italian reds and anything from Oregon and Australia.
Pairing primer: Sparkling wines pair with virtually all cuisine nearly regardless of the wine. Whites pair with most everything (including steak), but choice can be critical. Rosé is harder; red wines are hardest.