April 20, 2024

Editor's Page

Through the Grapevine

Vickie Chachere | 10/1/2023

Jason Steele and Lori Halbert have spent years engaged in civic life in Brevard County. Steele served in the Florida House in the 1980s; worked as a lobbyist and in real estate; served as a Republican party chair; and recently was appointed to the Brevard County Commission. Halbert, a marketing and advertising executive, served on the Indialantic Town Council and ran for the Florida House in 2010 but was narrowly edged out in a Republican primary race that turned hostile when her signs and property were vandalized.

Halbert emerged from that experience with deep concerns about the toxicity of public discourse. But the couple also believe if there’s anything that can break down ideological barriers, it’s the civility of a lovely meal. In 2012, Halbert (an avid home chef ) and Steele (serving as executive producer) launched Political Food for Thought, a cooking show where she hosted Florida political figures from across the ideological spectrum — from Debbie Wasserman Schultz to Marco Rubio — cooking their favorite meals and talking about the issues.

The show filmed for just two years, but it had a point: Is there a way to smooth out the rough edges of how we interact with each other? The couple’s latest passion project is a further study in the sentiment.

In 2018, they were on a vacation in the Cahors area in southern France, some 4,500 miles from home, when they came across Château de Chambert, a vineyard dating back to the 13th Century in a region where Romans were known to have planted grapes as early as 50 BC.

Current-day owners Philippe Lejeune and his wife Lin Liu, a Master of Wine (think of it as the PhD of winemaking), create biodynamic wines using only the natural ecosystem. Their techniques involve co-planting that encourages pollinators or to ward off pests and natural composts that control fungus growth and support the malbec, merlot and chardonnay grapes. A herd of shaggy Highland cattle roam the vineyards helping trim the grass and providing fertilizer. The climate is controlled by the Mediterranean Sea and a warm southerly wind from Africa during the important ripening months in late summer and early fall. The wine is aged 12 to 16 months in oak casks, and keeping with biodynamic principles, is bottled during the descending moon to preserve fruit and enhance its longevity.

Steele, who gave up drinking years ago, and Halbert fell in love not only with the château and the wine, but the idea of biodynamic agriculture. It’s a concept that’s only begun to take root in the United States, mostly among hobby farmers and, occasionally, growers who want to step beyond organic farming methods. In a state like Florida — where agriculture which feeds the masses is dependent on fertilizers and pesticides to ensure maximum crop production per acre — biodynamics is a bit of a pastoral dream. But wine is one of those luxury products where we can afford to be more cognizant that its conventional production comes with a price for the environment.

Steele and Halbert returned from their trip determined to start a business distributing Château de Chambert in Florida to high-end restaurants and boutique wine shops. Their venture got off to a rocky start when their first shipment was caught in the middle of a trade skirmish between the U.S. and France and was slapped with a 25% tariff, essentially erasing the profit they needed to plow back into the nascent business. The second shipment arrived in early 2020 just as the pandemic shut down restaurants.

“We thought about folding pretty quickly because of the anxiety,” Steele says. “We thought: This is going to be not worth our time and effort. But we got a few great breaks.” Café Margaux, an upscale French restaurant in Cocoa, hosted a wine dinner for a small group as soon as it was safe and has helped keep the dream alive. Now, the couple are importing about 600 cases a year with plans to grow to 1,000. Steele and Halbert’s son, Jace Chastain, crisscross the state making deliveries and evangelizing the qualities of the wine.

It was on one of those trips when Steele came by the FLORIDA TREND office in St. Petersburg to share the story of Château de Chambert wines. As he told of how the couple had been drawn to this wine with a sincere passion in his voice, it struck me their story is only partly about the wine but mostly about what happens when people gather together over a table of beautifully prepared food and share stories about their families, their travels and their views on the world in which we live. “Even when it’s someone you fundamentally disagree with, I can guarantee you can find something to connect on,” Halbert says. “People have way more connection than they don’t. People forget that.”

The thing I’ve always loved about wine is every good bottle carries a story of the place where it was produced and the people who made it; the great bottles include a memory of those around the table who shared it. Château de Chambert’s story — and Steele and Halbert’s — is one with an added reminder of the good that comes when we tread a little bit gentler on the planet and with each other.

Find me on Instagram, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.

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