Newer, friendlier: Prince Michel uncorks new image

Founded 20 years ago by Jean Leducq, the once stately Prince Michel Vineyard is ready to reveal a fresh, more informal visage. Located on Route 29 North between Madison and Culpeper (about a 40-minute drive from Charlottesville), the sizeable winery with its visitor's center, tasting room, and restaurant has just emerged from an extensive, year-long renovation.

Even a 60 mph drive-by glance reveals the enhanced curb appeal of the formerly uninspiring building– a tastefully Tuscan-looking peach-colored watchtower is flanked by a welcoming patio with white columns and an arbor awaiting new vines.

A circular driveway makes drop-offs and pick-ups easier than sipping chardonnay on a sunny day; a kinetic wineglass sculpture should sprout this Spring; and bold and brightly colored purple and green signage entices travelers to stop in for a taste.

This is all part of a friendlier image that began taking shape in August 2002 under a new management team headed by COO Vance Rose of Glen Ellen, California and GM Jim Eason from Houston.

"We're going for a more casual, relaxed atmosphere here at Prince Michel. You should have fun when you visit our winery," marketing director Laura Thoreson says.

So how does "fun" translate into wine and food? In addition to its original, French-style line, Prince Michel recently expanded to include the less expensive, easy-to-drink Madison line as well as the German-style Rapidan River line.

Prince Michel's new lunch and dinner restaurant, The Grille, might give you more than one reason to make a rest stop on your next drive to D.C. With its ceramic floors, patio-gazing windows, wood-beamed ceilings, and furniture crafted in part out of wine barrels (not as cheesy as it sounds), the dining room is a destination in itself.

Chef Bob Heck was plucked from a position at the Farmington Country Club to create the fresh, seasonal, wine-friendly new menu. A native of Baltimore and graduate of the Baltimore Culinary School, Heck worked for five years at restaurants in Napa and Sonoma in the '90s and also started One Fish, Two Fish in Virginia Beach and the Blue Moose Café in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"I'm trying to help establish a Virginia wine country cuisine using the freshest ingredients possible," he says. Heck describes his style as "new American on the side of eclectic," and that translates into appetizers like a "roasted butternut squash soup with cashews and sage oil," lunch selections like a "prosciutto and asparagus wrap" and a "fire-grilled portobello sandwich" and dinner entrees like "cedar-planked salmon" and "Georgetown Farm bison rib-eye with a cabernet glaze."

Prices are reasonable given the quality– under $10 for lunch options and under (or slightly above) $20 for dinner. "For 12 years this has been a classic French white tablecloth restaurant," Heck says. "We want to dispel that."

In case you have too much fun at the new Prince Michel Vineyard, suites are available for overnight stays.


Story Two: Darden students opt for local chips

 Last week Dish reported on the closing of Our Daily Bread in Barracks Road. Well, this week brings the story of small bakeries beating out the big, national chains. The Darden Brand Challenge is an annual event where students prepare consumer product showcases and test various, usually-name-brand products in "blind tests."

Assigned to chocolate chip cookies or pizza for this year's challenge (which happens on Friday, January 16, 5-7pm), one Darden team opted to study three local bakeries (Albermarle Baking Co., The Baker's Palate, Breadworks) instead of Chips A'Hoy and Papa Johns.

MBA student Monika Spencer, a former Our Daily Bread regular, made the choice. "I've seen so many bakeries close down due to rising rents," she says. "A good bakery 'gels' a neighborhood, and many retail real estate owners do not unfortunately think of their properties as community gathering places."


Next week: Awful Arthur's and Liquid go under for the last time.