The first course was served in a dish no bigger than a pot of lip gloss, accompanied by a full-bodied chardonnay. Although it was only a few hours' drive from home, I knew I was no longer in the super-size world of suburban drive-through cuisine.
At Prince Michel Vineyards in Leon, Va., I had transported myself to a finer realm of living. The winery, founded in 1982 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, features wine tours and tastings, a museum, overnight accommodations and the excellent Prince Michel Restaurant.
From the gourmet kitchen of chef Alain Lecomte, modest portions of food pack a delectable wallop for the palate. I sat back with a satisfied sigh, anticipating the leisurely Sunday luncheon that was just beginning. I was not to be disappointed on any level.
First was the miniature quiche, followed by a small bowl of roasted red pepper soup.
Those were the warm-up courses for the "real" first course I had ordered -- assiette aux deux saumons, a smoked salmon with dill cream sauce.
The main course was chateaubriand with green peppercorn sauce, a modest portion served with six of the tiniest vegetables known to man.
And here's where the outstanding wait staff is to be commended: Not only do they do their jobs without interrupting one's punch line or announcing their names and obvious function, but apparently they can read minds.
I believed I had ordered the grilled salmon, but thought better of it after the first course of salmon. I toyed with the idea of changing my order to the chateaubriand, but let that thought pass. To my surprise, one of the most tender fillets I've ever experienced was presented to me.
By this point in the meal, we switched to a 1997 Prince Michel Merlot Cabernet Reserve, a smooth red wine with plum tones reminiscent of Christmas. The salad course was next, preparing the palate for dessert -- a terrific creme brulee. (Fortunately, this was not a miniature portion!) Cappuccino and chocolates capped the meal.
More than two hours and innumerable calories later, the Sunday meal was finished. Thanks to the reasonable portions, however, we could still enjoy the rest of the sunny afternoon without wanting to fall into a food coma.
This was good, because the Prince Michel Vineyards is located in the pastoral Virginia countryside between Madison and Culpeper. Though great hiking can be found in the nearby Shenandoah National Park, we decided on a leisurely drive to the many antiques and crafts stores in this area. I was on a quest for antique china tea settings.
At the Minute Man Mini Mall just outside downtown Culpeper, I was burning up the plastic with my good finds.
Soon, though, it was time to beat a hasty retreat to Prince Michel for a tour and wine tasting.
Prince Michel's vineyards were planted in the early 1980s, and since then the wines of Prince Michel and sister winery Rapidan River have won more than 350 medals.
The wine history museum explains the origins of the Prince Michel name and shows some of the historical methods of making wine.
The tour takes visitors through a large room housing fermenting tanks and then into the barrel room, where the wine is aged. The tour concludes in the tasting room, where six wines can be sampled for $2.
The day we visited, I sampled three white and three red wines -- all outstanding.
For overnight guests, each of the Prince Michel Suites features a living room with wood fireplace, large-screen television with VCR, a spacious bathroom with a Jacuzzi and heated towel racks, and an intimate dining area with a mini-kitchen discreetly hidden behind closet doors.
From the front porch, guests can watch the sun set over the nearby chardonnay vines and woods of the 300-acre property. I can think of no better way to end such a day of pampering than with a bottle of great wine by the fire.
AN IDEAL DAY
8:30 a.m.: Leave for a leisurely drive to Virginia. Bring items for a small fireside meal.
11:30 a.m.: Arrive at the Prince Michel Restaurant for a gourmet lunch. Indulge your senses for at least two hours.
1:30 p.m.: Check into the Prince Michel Suites, and change for either a vigorous hike or a stroll through area shops.
4 p.m.: Back to Prince Michel for a wine tasting. Buy a bottle or two of your favorite wine.
5 p.m.: Drive past the vineyard on the way back to your suite. Build a fire, uncork a bottle of wine and enjoy a drink by the fire.
7 p.m.: Don't worry about another big meal at the restaurant. Set out some of the cheeses, nuts and pate you brought and stored in the mini kitchen. Nibble and sip some more wine.
9 p.m.: Get the Jacuzzi tub roaring, soak your pampered bones for a bit and head to bed for sweet dreams.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Prince Michel Vineyards is about 60 miles southwest of Washington, about a three-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 95 south to the Washington Beltway (I-495), heading west into Virginia. From I-495, take I-66 west past Manassas and exit on Route 29 south to Warrenton (don't take an earlier Route 29 exit near Centreville going north). About 30 minutes later, you will see signs for Prince Michel.
Lodging: The suites at Prince Michel are available Thursday through Saturday evenings: $350 a night for Thursday, $400 for Friday or Saturday. Breakfast is included.
Dining: The Prince Michel Restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday, and offers fixed-price menus. The gourmet luncheon menu is $30 a person Thursday through Saturday and $40 Sunday, not including spirits, wine, taxes or gratuity. The dinner menu is $80 a person and available Thursday through Saturday, not including spirits, wine, taxes or gratuity.
Information: For more information about Prince Michel Vineyards, call 800-800-9463, or visit www.princemichel.com. For a list of dining and lodging options in the Culpeper area, call 888-285-7373.
Wine tours: Many area wineries offer tours and wine tastings. For information, contact the Virginia Wine Marketing Program at 800-828-4637.
Area attractions: History buffs will want to tour the Civil War battlefields near Culpeper, including Cedar Mountain, Kelly's Ford and Brandy Station.
The Museum of Culpeper History also offers a variety of Civil War exhibits. And hiking is always popular at the nearby Shenandoah National Park.