Jeff Gregory quickly stoops down, shielded by his friend from the watchful eyes of the vineyard workers. He surreptitiously bags a bit of soil for his collection. Collecting and comparing soil is one of the many ways he educates himself about wine; later this trip he’ll buy a hard-to-find book by a master of wine. At this moment he’s in Burgundy, touring a premier cru vineyard in Côtes-de-Beaune. He’s taking a break from tastings at the 16 wineries on his agenda.
When he returns home, his customers are eager to know how his trip went. They’re a little disappointed to hear that it wasn’t a week-long, wine-fueled party. Tasting up to 60 wines a day, as well as being served wine with lunch and dinner, he and his companions began to burn out. They had to be responsible about their consumption, spitting almost every taste to stay sober and keep their palates as intact as possible. The tastings tended to be serious, set in a professional atmosphere.
Over the week, Gregory, the general manager and wine director of FT33 and managing partner of Filament, tries over 200 wines. The import company, Becky Wasserman and Co., invited Gregory and several other Texas-based buyers to come to Burgundy and visit a wide range of producers, allowing side-by-side comparisons. “It was very educational being able to taste entire domains at one time," Gregory says. "Most often you’re shown a mixed bag of six or eight Burgundies in a sales visit with your rep, but they would be a cross-section of the portfolio. You wouldn’t often get to taste all Simon Bizes or Bret Brothers at once.”
What’s the advantage of tasting all these wines close together? “There’s a lot of debate and disagreement about the best way to make the best wine," Gregory says. "One producer presses all their wine whole-cluster, stems included, which changes the style of the wine dramatically. We also tasted with a producer who fully de-stems all their fruit. You’re getting the opportunity to taste different villages up close and to develop a clear picture of the stylistic differences between each producer.”
Gregory also brought back valuable insights about the future of wines from Burgundy. “2014 is looking to be a high-quality, early-drinking vintage, not super warm but relatively even. Most producers seem to think the 2014 vintage is something you’d drink before the 2013 vintage,” Gregory says. “2014 wasn’t considered a vintage that produced super extracted wines, but they’re very well balanced and will be ready to drink earlier than the cooler vintages.”
The FT33 and Filament wine lists represent Jeff’s philosophy about wine. “Over time, I’ve migrated toward wines that are really bright, wines that don’t give you palate fatigue, wines that are quaffable," he says. "I look for things lower in alcohol, not quite as extracted and higher in acidity. It should be balanced and bring you back sip after sip.” He also tries to select wine from independent, family-owned domains, paralleling executive chef and owner Matt McCallister’s philosophy about buying from farmers he knows and trusts.
In a Cabernet-heavy city, FT33’s award-winning wine program deviates from the norm. While it has a respectable number of Cab and domestic Pinot Noir offerings, Burgundy is the star. Light to medium-bodied wines pair better with Matt McCallister’s veggie-heavy menu, and diners ask for and trust their servers’ recommendations. Certain patrons come exclusively for the Burgundy, and Gregory makes sure their needs are met. On this trip, he pinpointed a few wines to add to his program, such as Pouilly-Vinzelles ‘Les Quarts’ by La Soufrandière and Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru ‘Les Fuées’ by Jacques-Frederic Mugnier.
When creating a wine list for Filament, Gregory knew he needed something that complemented Matt McCallister and Cody Sharp’s food but fit the Deep Ellum location. He chose to scale the list back, restricting it to domestic and French wines to complement the New Orleans-inspired food. A limited wine list also allowed more prominence for the whiskey program. Price points are lower, in line with Filament’s mission as a more casual dining experience. Jeff also feels Filament is a better place to offer bolder, less traditional choices, like sparkling Gamay.
With Burgundy prices continuing to rise due to small harvests (2014 crops suffered terrible hail storm devastation, the third year in a row for Burgundy to be hit hard), growers are looking to diversify. Two varietals in particular appear to be on the rise. “There are a lot of people interested in seeing Aligoté revitalized and planted in high-quality vineyard sites,” Gregory says. “It’s currently relegated to third-tier vineyard land. A producer here and there imports Aligoté to the United States, and they’re phenomenal wines.”
Aligoté is a great alternative to Chardonnay grown in Burgundy, but if white wine isn’t your preference, Gregory has good news for red drinkers, too. “Gamay is on people’s tongues," he says. "Cru Beaujolais is great if you have a palate for Burgundian style wine but aren’t going to spend $300 on a bottle. People are starting to pay attention to Gamay from the Loire Valley and just outside of Beaujolais. Some producers in Burgundy are starting to look toward playing around with Gamay in Beaujolais as well.” He really enjoyed the 2014 Beaujolais by Lafarge-Vial, a new project from Volnay master Michel Lafarge. These should come to Texas in about six months.
In spring, Gregory wants to add an Aligoté to FT33’s by-the-glass menu, hoping his patrons will appreciate the emerging trend. He also wants to reintroduce Gamay by the glass; it didn’t go over so well the first time around, but it’s a hit at Filament. “Gamay is overlooked by the general public, even by many who are really into Burgundy,” Gregory says. He hopes his patrons will enjoy it more this time, especially given its increasing popularity among experienced growers. In the meantime, he’ll be sipping cocktails at Midnight Rambler and reading Inside Burgundy by Jasper Morris.