By the bottle

Manon Serres, left, flew from Europe to Brevard to share a toast with Space Coast wine importers Lori Halbert and Jason Steele and to present the wines of Chateau Chambert during a special dinner at Café Margaux.

Manon Serres, left, flew from Europe to Brevard to share a toast with Space Coast wine importers Lori Halbert and Jason Steele and to present the wines of Chateau Chambert during a special dinner at Café Margaux.

Monthly dinners highlight the devotion to the world of wines

Midweek evenings are not usually busy at restaurants, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowd gathered a recent Wednesday at Café Margaux.

The Cocoa Village restaurant was hosting a gustative journey of pairings created by Margaux Executive Chef Erol Tugrul with tastings of rare single-parcel French malbecs from Chateau Chambert, one of the first vineyards in the world to embrace the growing trend of truly organic and biodynamic winemaking.

Production for the special wines was only 600 bottles and the prices, which started at $175 a bottle, reflected the limited quantities.

To orchestrate the special event, Café Margaux’s owner, Alex Litras, only needed to chat with restaurant patrons Lori Halbert and Jason Steele. The owners of JLJ Importing in Melbourne, they were happy to invite winery ambassador Manon Serres to fly from France for the event.

Alex and Megan Litras of Café Margaux

Alex and Megan Litras of Café Margaux are major players in Brevard’s wine scene.

Halbert and Steele fell in love with the wines of Chateau Chambert while touring the Cahors wine-making region, where a 12th century monastery served as the couple’s vacation getaway. When they could not find Chateau Chambert wines for sale back in the United States, they decided to import them. Such is the devotion to wine in Brevard.

“The Brevard wine scene is much more affluent than people give it credit for,” said Kim Bachand, owner of The Wine Lady.

Kim Bachand, aka The Wine Lady

Kim Bachand, aka The Wine Lady, enjoys a devoted following at her weekly wine tasting events.

Bachand’s wine shop is in Cocoa Village’s Belair Courtyard, which not coincidentally, is also home to Café Margaux, hot spot for local oenophiles.

“Alex has been a major player in the wine scene,” Bachand added.

When Litras opened his restaurant in 1990, things were very different.

“Most of the wine in California was produced by five big wineries,” he said. “They had the market locked up. Some more high-end buyers ordered European wines, but here seemed to be a big divide between wine consumers. As the years went on, novice wine drinkers became more adventurous and the higher-end buyers got even more affluent in their choices.

“Today, I can have a Falanghina and a Lagrein on the by-the-glass list and a great conversation about these Italian indigenous grape varietal that are now also grown in California. We can sell wines that come from Puglia, Italy, not just Tuscany and Piedmont. We can showcase Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes.”

Merritt Island attorney Joe Teague Caruso

Merritt Island attorney Joe Teague Caruso has downsized his wine collection from 10,000 to 5,000 bottles.

For three decades, Café Margaux has featured wine dinners two days a month from April through January. The event draws serious wine enthusiasts such as Joe Teague Caruso.

When the Merritt Island attorney moved his office to smaller quarters in Cocoa, he had to pare down his wine collection from 10,000 bottles to a mere 5,000. His climate-controlled office with access to a generator provided perfect storage for his wines and a hurricane shelter — probably the best in Florida — where Caruso would repair to during bad weather.

For three years, Caruso served as national president for the legendary gourmet society, La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, and was on the international board of directors for another four, positions that provided globetrotting opportunities from Paris and Barcelona to Istanbul and Zurich, all in the name of good wine and food.

His passion for wine began with an encyclopedia, a Christmas present.
“It took me a couple of years, but I read the whole thing,” he said. “The more I got into it, the more I realized wine was more than something you put in a bottle.”

president of the Space Coast Chapter of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs​ ​gourmet society, Dee Dee Sheffield, with husband, Harry

As president of the Space Coast Chapter of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs​ ​gourmet society, Dee Dee Sheffield, pictured with husband, Harry, at Café Margaux, organizes monthly dinners that showcase the best food and wine in the county.

Pursuit of the perfect wine became part of his life as Caruso attended weekend wine tastings in New Orleans, Atlanta and Palm Beach. Café Margaux’s wine dinners earned his patronage from the start.

“When Café Margaux started doing wine dinners, there was nobody else doing them here,” he said.

Litras’ restaurant is one of several catering to wine connoisseurs. Green Turtle Market, another local pioneer in wine dinners, also schedules events on a regular basis. Themed Green Turtle events highlight wines from specific regions or countries, such as the recent An Evening in Italy, which featured a five-course menu designed by executive chef Dennis Lott together with wines from Ethica’s Portfolio.

Amici’s, cuiZine, Dove 3, The Mansion, Djon’s, Le French, Crush 11 restaurant and others do their part, too, as do shops like The Wine Lady, where Thursday wine tastings draw a crowd from around the county.

“My customers are always willing to try something new,” Bachand said.

Also always willing to sip new wines are the 65 members of the Space Coast Chapter of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, led by president Dee Dee Sheffield.

Monthly dinners introduce members to the best food and wine in the county.

Café Margaux remains as a staple destination.

“Alex is a huge asset to the area,” Sheffield said. “He brings wine here we wouldn’t otherwise see.”

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, rocked the world of wine when a group of oenophile’s A-listers conducted blind tastings of fine French wines versus upstart Napa. Time magazine writer George Taber, who later wrote a book on the legendary event, was there to witness the moment New World wine surpassed the Old.

Which brings us to the local La Chaîne.

“We had met George Taber and were fortunate to convince him to lead the discussion at our very own re-creation of the Judgment of Paris,” said Sandi Miller, a La Chaîne member, who like Caruso, served on the national board and was appointed to the International Board of Advisors based in Paris.

The tasting was held at Café Margaux.

“It was the perfect setting for this group of wine enthusiasts,” Miller added.

The fact that Brevard could lure internationally known Taber to present for a La Chaîne dinner speaks volumes about the fervor of local oenophiles.

Chef Ercan Ekinci

Chef Ercan Ekinci will rock the world of local wine enthusiasts with the upcoming opening of Urban Prime. The upscale Viera restaurant and market will feature tastings, dinners, a wine club and a 7,000-bottle cellar that features a collection of wines rating 95 or higher in Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. ERCAN EKINCI

Space Coast wine lovers expect 2023 to be a banner year, for Urban Prime is slated to shake their world when the new restaurant and market opens in Viera in late spring or early summer.

“Urban Prime wine cellar was created to toast our shared love of food, fine wine and great company,” chef Ercan Ekinci said.

Ekinci, for 20 years the executive chef at Green Turtle Market, developed the blueprint for the 350-seat, 13,000-square-foot restaurant and market. Featured prominently is a temperature and humidity controlled 7,000-bottle glass wine cellar featuring a collection of wines rating 95 or higher in Wine Spectator’s 100-point-scale. On any given day, the menu will feature 120 different boutique wines from around the world, handpicked by Ekinci and his team of sommeliers.

“These wines will take you around the world,” promised Ekinci, who has met with more than 60 wine portfolio managers to develop the collection. “They are not wines you will be able to find at the big wine stores.”

Monthly tastings and wine dinners will include performances from members of groups such as the Brevard Symphony Orchestra, presentations from winemakers from around the world and even visual artists creating art while patrons dine.

A tiered wine club will add further opportunities for special wine events. At the market, customers will be able to sip and stroll after choosing a favorite from a 32-bottle wine dispenser.

“It’s going to be a game changer,” Ekinci said.

Café Margaux’s Wine Dinners

John and Sand Miller

Sandi Miller, who served on both the national and international board of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, and husband​,​ John​,​ are regulars at Café Margaux,​ ​where​ La Chaîne​ re-created the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. The blind taste​ ​test known as the Judgment of Paris is considered the pivotal event when​ ​United States wines were recognized superior to European vintages.

The restaurant hosts six-course wine dinners at 6:30 p.m. on the first Thursday and Friday of the month.

June 8-9 – Argentinian wines, featuring wines of Bodega Catena Zapata, $135.
June 22 – Special engagement dinner of Rudd Winery from Oakville, California, $195.
July 13-14 – Willamette Valley, Oregon, wine dinner featuring King Estate, $135.
Aug. 3-4 – Healdsburg, California, wine dinner featuring Alexander Valley Vineyards, $135
Sept. 7-8 – Willamette Valley, Oregon, wine dinner featuring Coelho Winery, $135
Oct. 5-6 – Sonoma, California, wine dinner featuring Marietta Cellars, $135
Nov. 2-3 – Rhone, France, wine dinner featuring Chateau de Beaucastel, $155.
Dec. 7-8 – Puglia, Italy, wine dinner featuring Varvaglione, $135.
Jan. 11-12 – Piedmonte, Italy, wine dinner featuring Rosello, $145.


WHAT: Café Margaux
WHERE: 220 Brevard Ave., Cocoa Village
VISIT: for menus
CALL: 321.639.8343 to make reservations

Maria Sonnenberg
professor at Florida Institute of Technology |

Maria is a prolific writer and proofer for Space Coast Living and an adjunct professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Nathan M. Bisk College of Business. When not writing, teaching or traveling, she can be found waging a one-woman war against her lawn and futilely attempting to maintain order among the chaos of a pack of extremely clueless wirehair dachshunds and an angst-driven basset hound.