Taste test: Prince Michel meets Chang

On Sunday, June 26, Winemaker Brad Hansen had his work cut out for him: pairing his Prince Michel Vineyard wines with Peter Chang's singular dishes, many of which often defy description, like Chinese pumpkin that tasted like a cross between a potato and a cantaloupe, a soup that combines lamb ribs and fish, or mussels in a thick dark sauce that numbs your lips for a good fifteen minutes. Still, at a packed wine dinner at Peter Chang's China Grill, the restaurant's first wine dinner, Hansen managed to pull it off with good humor and a selection of four pretty tasty wines.

Of course, having the wine dinner at Chang's place practically guaranteed a crowd, as the place has been busy since opening in March. It's also become a favorite of local celebs. Patricia Kluge showed up while we were there, though not for the wine dinner, and actor Robert Duval has discovered the place.

Prince Michel Vineyard owner Kristin Holzman was on hand as well. Holzman bought the vineyard in 2005 with her then husband Terry Holtzman, a real estate developer who came to the area to develop estates but stumbled into the wine business. The couple have since divorced, and Holzman is now the sole owner. According to Holtzman, the winery has changed under her leadership, from a more formal environment to one that's more festive and fun.

"Our tasting room is a lot more fun and relaxed," she says, "with people wandering around and chatting, listening to music, and dancing."

One of the more fun (and decidedly less brand-centric) products the vineyard now offers are 'private label wines," meaning you buy a case or two of Prince Michel wine and have your High School yearbook photo as the label and call it 'Big Hair Red' and give it to your friends or family as a gift. Of course, buying a case or two with a nice photo of the bride and groom works nicely for weddings.  

Hansen says his work has become easier, and more interesting, since Holzman began acquiring grapes from growers all around Virginia, not just at their own vineyard. "It's definitely expanded our pallet," says Hansen, "and allowed us to experiment more."

First up was their Rapidan River Semi-Dry Riesling, a fruity wine in the German sense, that went great with the mussels in the numbing sauce and something called spicy shrimp toast, a kind of steamed shrimp fritter. We were told that people don't have ovens in China, even today, and that most foods that Americans might bake in an oven are steamed instead. The Arete Chardonnay accompanied the fish balls and lamb rib soup, totally confusing our happy taste buds, and then their Cabernet Franc met up with the steak with chili peppers, Peking duck rolls (basically a kind of Chinese burrito), and a crispy tangle of thin fish strips in a red sweet sauce.

Finally, Hansen served up the Rapidan River Chocolate Wine for dessert (nothing fancy, just fresh fruit and ice cream), a crowd favorite with its rich chocolate smell and serious wine taste.

As for Chang, well, he's been splitting his time between Charlottesville and Atlanta, where he has another restaurant. Both are doing very well, he says. But he also has plans in the work that could take him back to China. While we're going through a recession/depression (or whatever you want to call it), China's economy is booming. For example, he says a small sandwich that might cost you $4 or $5 here will run you $8 to $10 in Hong Kong or Beijing. But don't worry, those plans are about a year or two off. For now, for at least two weeks or more every month, Mr. Chang is ours.  

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