Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Survival Guide to Amelia Island in Winter

I am on a discovery tour of my roots. Not really, but I am in Florida where I lived for nearly 25 years. In this case, though, I am in North Florida on Amelia Island -- Fernandina Beach to be exact.

When AAA beckons, I answer the call. I'm here researching a travel piece for AAA of the Carolinas Go Magazine.

Never having been here, I am taken with the town's quaintness, history and small-town appeal. I'd like to have the fiberglass/wood-pirate concession here. There seems to be a pirate statue of one sort or another in front of about half the downtown businesses.

At one point I looked down the street and was surprised to see statues of pirates riding camels. As I grew closer, I discovered what I was seeing was part of a church's outdoor nativity scene. The three were the Wise Men bearing frankincense, myrrh and gold doubloons, perhaps.

The weather is miserable. Thanks to an overcast sky, the temperature is in the mid 50s. This is not particularly chilly for a Carolinian, but it is playing havoc with locals who think it signals a new Ice Age.

As I write this, I am supposed to be out on a boat sightseeing. The morning's cruise, however, was canceled because the dozen or so seniors who were booked apparently aren't sturdy enough to set sail on such a crappy day. I'm on the list for this afternoon's outing, but that is in doubt as well.

I did battle the elements to visit Fort Clinch. It's a War of Northern Aggression-era fort built by the Union after the Confederate armies left Florida. It is in remarkably good shape, hosting reenactments with some regularity.

Never one to let a little nasty weather ruin a trip, I have been sampling the town's many watering holes in lieu of outdoor activities. There are an abundance of them.

My Palm Beach County friend Amy has to visit Jacksonville every week for her work. We arranged to have dinner together while I was here and accomplished that last evening. Prior to that, we darkened a few doors.

Our first stop was The Palace Saloon. Billing itself as the oldest bar in Florida, it has a colorful history and is decorated in 19th century funk. At 4 in the afternoon it was full of smoke -- it's easy to take the no-smoking rule of most areas for granted -- so we had a quick beer and struck out for O'Kane's Irish Pub. The Murphy's Stout was cold and creamy.

We were hungry for some chips and salsa, and adjourned to Peppers -- a Mexican cantina --  for that and a margarita.

Now under a full head of steam, we went to Lulu's at the Thompson House for dinner and the obligatory bottle of wine. Our host was Brian Grimley. He and his wife opened Lulu's about 3 years ago. Specializing in Southern dishes with a Cajun influence, Lulu's was a spectacular treat.

It doesn't look like much on the outside, but the food was outstanding. For an appetizer we both had the $11 Jumbo Lump Crab Cake. We then shared what the specials menu described at Mac and Cheese with shrimp, but was really Alfredo sauce tossed with pasta and jumbo shrimp. It was truly exceptional and I'm not much of a seafood eater. It rang the register at $23.

As dinner was winding down, Brian came out of the kitchen to chat; two hours and another bottle of wine later, we were still talking.

Taking his role of host seriously, Brian kept Amy's glass full.

I'm staying at the Williams House, a B&B about five blocks from the center of town. The innkeepers are Byron and Deborah McCutchen. Operating with no shortage of enthusiasm, they do a great job. I am staying in the Princess Amelia Anniversary Suite. I agree that the Smugglers Cove suite would have been more Butch, but the room is tasteful, comfortable and quiet. The nightly rates range this time of year from $185 to $250. The Princess suite is $200.

I even have my own full-size Christmas tree in the corner. In fact the entire house is decorated inside and out like a Macy's holiday window.

And the adventure continues.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nelson DeMille: The Ideal Winter Read

Sadly I am down to the final 100 pages or so of the latest Nelson DeMille novel: The Panther.

I write "sadly" because, as with all DeMille's works,  it's one of those books I keep reading because I need to learn what happens next, but I don't want it to end.

It's a "page turner," as they say.

I read a lot of fiction. At any given time I usually have two books going. One is fiction and the other either a biography, political commentary, history or look at current affairs. The fiction I usually read at night before bed and on airplanes. The nonfiction I carry to restaurants and watering holes when I'm going to be myself.

DeMille is, without a doubt, my favorite contemporary author. He is a master craftsman who knows how to create compelling characters while brilliantly constructing their story.

With the exception of his early co-written work Mayday, I highly recommend anything and everything he's penned.

If you aren't a fan, the title you might be familiar with is The General's Daughter, made into a John Travolta film.

Since 1997,  DeMille has primarily concentrated on his John Corey character. The Panther is the sixth in the Corey series. If you haven't read them, go to Amazon now and download the first in the series, Plum Island. The Kindle version is only $ .99.

Any reader on your Christmas list will appreciate the introduction to DeMille and John Corey.

Corey is a smartass of monumental proportions. A former NYPD detective, he winds up in the FBI joint task force on terrorism. Every book in the series is a marvelous read and is riddled with historical references.

Because the series is packed with reoccurring characters, you'll want to read the books in order. Once you've conquered Plum Island, move on to the next. Here's the rest of the list:

1.      The Lion's Game
2.      Night Fall
3.      Wild Fire
4.      The Lion
5.      The Panther

Before reading The Panther, you might want to read The General's Daughter. Its primary character teams with John Corey in The Panther.

Happy reading!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Parting Shot, er Beer, in New Mexico

I took a break from penning adventures from assorted New Mexico microbreweries to concentrate on issues of greater import like the clowns wearing TSA uniforms in San Francisco. Now that I have that out of my system, back to the brew!

When I was in Santa Fe a couple of weeks ago with Volkswagen, our lunch stop at the end of the Jetta Hybrid ride and drive was at the Luminaria restaurant at the Inn and Spa at Loretto in downtown Santa Fe.

Lunch was Mexican-infused fare served on the restaurant's open patio. It was good, but I opted for a cheeseburger minus the guacamole and some other Mexicana-fringe accoutrements that I had no interest in consuming. The burger was delicious and the home-cut fries outstanding. They, however, left me with a powerful thirst.

VW offered to have me driven to my sister's rather than she and my brother-in-law having to make the 80-mile hike up to get me. I had a couple of hours to kill before my car was scheduled to depart, so I decided to head to the Plaza that was a couple of blocks away. I had heard rumors of a microbrewery in the area; my mission was clear.

One of the VW PR types told me that she thought it was right on the Plaza. I struck out from the restaurant with a song in my heart and dark brew on my mind. Two hikes around the Plaza and short jaunts a couple of blocks down side streets produced zero results.

I walked back to the hotel the restaurant is in and asked the concierge for help. She looked it up and reported that it is indeed on the Plaza on the second floor of the Arcade Building. I remembered passing by the Arcade Building, but never saw a sign for the brewery.

I strolled the two blocks back to the Plaza and the additional block of the Plaza to the Arcade Building. Sure enough, there was a tiny sign over the entrance that said Marble Brewery Tap Room with an arrow pointing up.

I climbed the stairs and hit the Mother Lode. This isn't the brewery -- that's in Albuquerque -- it's a tap room owned by the brewery and featuring its beers.

I ordered a pint of Oatmeal Stout. It was loaded with chocolate and coffee flavor. Good stuff! I also sampled the Red Ale and some sort of wheat/porter ale that was surprisingly good. Generally I don't like wheat beer, but this wasn't bad at all.

I chatted up the bartender who was completing her third week in the job, purchased the obligatory tee-shirt, and headed for my ride.

I plan on visiting the brewery itself during my Christmas New Mexico stay.

When I visit my sister, her family always tries to put together a family dinner at Sadie’s in Albuquerque, my favorite Mexican restaurant. I coerced my sister and her husband to stop at another brewery I found online on our way to our Sadie's dinner. Actually, no coercion was involved; they go out of their way to show me a good time whenever I visit. I'm fairly low maintenance, so I don't make many requests beyond Sadie's and a particular dinner or two that my sister makes like our mother did. We informed other family members of our intention in case they wanted to join us.

The microbrewery in question is La Cumbre Brewing Company. As many micro breweries are, it is located in the belly of an industrial warehouse area. It doesn't look like much on the outside, but is rather inviting inside.

No too shocking, I opted for the Malpais Stout: truly wonderful.

One of the reasons I chose La Cumbre over the couple of other Albuquerque breweries is because of its truly colorful logo. I always try to buy a shirt when I'm visiting a new brewery and I consider the La Cumbre logo to be one of the better brewery logos I've seen. I thought it would look great on the back of a black or navy-blue shirt.

Although several tee-shirts were displayed behind the bar, none of the men's shirts had the logo on the back. I was really disappointed. Glad the beer was good.

That's the latest suds report.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Another TSA Encounter of the Trying Kind

I recently returned from Stalingrad.

Not really, it was San Francisco; but, except for the climate, telling the difference often isn't easy.

I was there for a Ford event introducing the C-Max Plug-in Hybrid. Where better than Stalingrad on the Bay to launch that?

First let me say that the TSA people at the San Francisco airport are consistently the nastiest, least helpful, laziest representatives of an organization often celebrated for its nasty, unhelpful, lazy troops that I have encountered.

Since TSA unionized, it can only get better, right? I'm sure the word from union leadership that it's all about serving the public and making flying safer just hasn't trickled down to the rank and file in San Francisco.

I flew out of San Francisco four or five times this year and each experience in security was as bad or worse than the previous one. My single worst experience this year -- so far -- was in Newark, but San Francisco is bad trip after trip after trip.

On this most recent trip I made it through the person who looks at your ID, looks at your boarding pass and then scribbles on it only to get up to the long table ahead of the x-ray conveyor just as the last gray bin disappeared from my station.

After about 15 or 20 seconds of nothing coming through the machine, the guy glued to the monitor looked around and noticed the bin shortage. He interrupted an agent chatting up yet another agent -- neither seemed to be doing anything beyond discussing last night's big game -- and pointed out the problem. This guy saunters out, grabs the empty bin cart and ever so slowly rolls it back into the secure area.

I can see him very methodically -- politically correct for "slowly" -- stacking up some bins that he places on the cart in bunches of three or four. Meanwhile TICK EFFING TOCK!!!

Where do they find these people? Apparently TSA headhunters combed the list of San Francisco DMV workers on disability to put together this crack team.

After assembling two stacks of about 10 bins each on his cart, Mr. I-Love-My-Job begins sauntering back toward the non-secure area where people are beginning to really stack up behind me. Suddenly I see him pause and start chatting up yet another agent with nothing to do. I'm standing there watching as they yuk it up for several seconds before he resumes heading my way.

As this is happening the agent with the taxing job of repeating over and over again what needs to come out of our pockets and bags, and go into the bins, finally realizes my line has no bins. Does he transfer some bins from the stack 2 feet from him to our line? Hell, no. To the end of his next spiel he simply adds, "unless you don't have any bins, then I guess you'll just have to wait for some."

Thanks, Shecky. Har har.

And wait I did. It probably took Flash two minutes from the time he grabbed the empty cart until he returned with 20 bins.

Our tax dollars at work.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remember the Avalon: Out and About Near -- Rather Than In -- San Antonio

Toyota invited me to drive its redesigned Avalon at a shindig it threw in San Antonio recently.

San Antonio being the location of the iconic Alamo, as in, "Remember the..."

Well, it was sort of San Antonio. We stayed at the J.W. Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. You can substitute the "Hill Country" in the name with "but not really."

In fact, this property is about 20 miles north of the city. Santa Anna wasn't much farther away -- albeit to the south rather than the north -- when Travis, Crockett and company realized that the wily old general hadn't waited for spring after all when he began marching his army on the little outpost kicking off a 13-day siege, and eventually delivering a very bad day to the boys manning the walls.

Obviously the general hadn't mastered the concept of "manana."

I love San Antonio; it's one of my favorite cities. Unfortunately, whenever a car company decides to host an event there, it chooses a hotel in the boonies, as Toyota did. So, we never get to take advantage of the city's great downtown.

Seeing the Alamo for the first time is always a bit of a shock. The conversation goes something like:

"Wow, look at that; they made a scale model of the Alamo right in the middle of downtown. Cool; now where's the real thing?

"That's it."

"What do you mean that's it? What's it; that little thing? Where's the rest of it?"

"That's all there is."

"Are you kidding me? I came 2,000 miles to look at something that I can fit in the back of my Chevy Suburban and take home? What a ripoff!"

You've heard cameras put 10 pounds on people; well, movie cameras and Hollywood creative license has doubled the size of the mission's central building in films and on television. But I still get a little choked up when I see it.

This Marriott is a convention and conference center. Boasting 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, more than 1,000 guest rooms and suites, six restaurants, a Starbucks, a full-service FedEx facility, two 18-hole golf courses, and a spa where you can get things, rubbed, waxed, painted and powdered, it requires a GPS to get from one area to another.

There are people who have headed out in the morning for a bagel never to be heard from again. This is a big, honkin' place.

Apparently the Attorney General of Mexico and his entourage were sharing the facilities with us. We never did see him, but had to navigate around big, security types sporting ear pieces, the obligatory scowl, and probably heat.

One of the nicest conference hotels I've stayed in, the J.W. Marriott is impressive on many levels. Usually everything from service to the food quality in the restaurants at an uber-big convention hotel is a compromise resulting from the volume of guests swarming around the place at any given time; not so this Marriott.

Service was attentive and the food fabulous. On our second night there, I had a ribeye steak the size of a manhole cover grilled to perfection. I took full advantage of the tequila bar in the Cibolo Moon restaurant. Had a few sippin' shots spread over my two nights there.

My overall opinion was also elevated when Toyota served Silver Oak Cabernet at dinner both nights. It's one of my favorite Cabs. It made me happy.

I must admit, I wasn't chomping at the bit to drive the redesigned 2013 Avalon. For years I quipped that the Avalon was the Mercury Grand Marquis for blue hairs who didn't want to buy American. Obviously I can't say that anymore; Grand Marquis bit the dust along with the Lincoln Town Car and the Ford Crown Victoria.

As if reading my mind, Toyota product planners created an Avalon Livery Package in the hopes of picking up some of the limo business abandoned by Ford.

Toyota mapped out three routes of varying lengths for us to put Avalon through its paces. What we discovered is a remarkably quiet, comfortable ride-and-drive experience.

Toyota is quite pleased with itself that Avalon went from concept to manufacturing in North America. Interior and Exterior styling were from American designers. Inside and out the styling is a huge departure from the stodgy plain-Jane Avalons of yore.

Kentucky workers are already assembling Avalons in Georgetown for a December on-sale date.

Pricing begins at $30,990 for the gasoline-engine version and $35,555 for the hybrid.

The gasoline-engine Avalon gets its go from a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 hitched to a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. The EPA expects it to get 25 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

There's gobs of rear-seat legroom and the trunk is huge. The stitching you see around the cockpit is all done by humans not robots.

All in all, it's quite a fine effort.

Although the Alamo wasn't close to the resort, thank God a micro brewery was. Sitting on a little bluff along Ranch Road 12 in Wimberley, Texas, the Middleton Brewing Co. has been making beer for a year or so.

I tried the Black Lab Porter. It was full flavored and quite good.

Bought a tee-shirt, too.

It wasn't quite a substitute for the Alamo, but it still rounded out my trip nicely.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Jetta'ing Across New Mexico

Once upon a time, I had a love affair with New Mexico.

When younger, I often dreamed about landing that high-paying job or hitting the lottery and buying a ranch there. I even had a name for it: Renova. As it has become ever more apparent that neither of these things was likely to happen, I had to instead settle on NM as a place to retire.

In the ensuing years my enthusiasm for spending my golden years in the "Land of Enchantment" has waned. Moving to the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina a few years ago cured my NM wanderlust for good.

Don't get me wrong, I still love it, but I no longer see myself a desert dweller. For all intents and purposes I did live there for more than six months right before moving to South Florida more than twenty years ago. Some might argue with my characterization of "living" there because I slept on my sister's sofa in Las Cruces during that period, but I was living there nontheless.

I've never lost my enthusiasm for all things southwest; much of my house is furnished and decorated in southwestern motif; but the desert no longer holds an irresistible appeal to me.

Because my sister now lives just south of Albuquerque and I still love visiting NM, I was doubly happy when Volkswagen chose Santa Fe as the site for its press introduction of its all-new 2013 Jetta Hybrid.

A key word is missing from the official name of this terrific car that VW sums up as "efficiency without sacrifice": turbocharged.

Jetta is an important vehicle for VW, representing about 34% of its total sales. It made sense to use it as the company's springboard to hybrid technology for its cars. It already had a hybrid version of its Toureg luxury SUV.

What makes the Jetta unique among hybrids is its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine -- the only turbo on the hybrid landscape. It, with an electric motor, delivers a combined horsepower total of 170 ponies. Channeling this output to the front wheels falls to a slick, seven-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Getting to 60 miles per hour from a standstill takes 8.6 seconds. Impressive for a mid-level hybrid.

Although it has yet to complete fuel economy certification, VW says fuel economy will also be impressive, tossing around an estimated city-highway-combined mileage of 45 mpg.

VW hosted us at the Four Seasons Resort -- Rancho Encantado just north of Santa Fe.

It's a magnificent property sprawling over several acres and consisting of a spa, restaurant and 65 individual guest casitas. VW reserved the entire property for the four two-day waves of the Jetta Hybrid event.

Our 150-mile drive took us from the resort to the trendy snow-skiing town of Taos. Curvy mountain roads and heart-stopping landscape best describe the route to and from Taos. The Jetta had no problem mastering the twisties. It is quiet, comfortable and nicely equipped.

On the morning route we had a driver-change stop at the Classical Gas Museum.

It is an eclectic collection of all things related to old gas stations and pumps. Imagining all of the rotting old barns, warehouses and sheds that must have been mined to come up with the thousands of items strewn around this place is mind boggling.

It was fun seeing old gas pumps with prices below 30 cents for a gallon of gas.

Despite my familiarity with most areas of NM, I had never before been to Taos. You can spend days crisscrossing the state without ever tiring of the views. The area surrounding Taos is a beautiful as any in the state. It is truly amazing.

With my driving partner needing a pit stop, we found a state-sponsored restroom on the edge of a scenic pulloff. Upon finding the doors locked, my buddy adjourned to its far side to consummate his biological imperative.

By the looks of the door, a previous visitor attempted a more direct approach. Ya gotta love the American West!

I'm winding up my NM stay. This latest visit hasn't changed my mind about remaining in South Carolina, but it has reminded me of all the reasons I fell in love with the desert in the first place.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tractor Brewing Company: Another Stop on My Tour of New Mexican Microbreweries

Tractor Brewing Company is the latest stop on my tour of New Mexican microbreweries.

Located in Los Lunas, roughly 20 miles south of Albuquerque, TBC is a small brewery that's part of Ribs Hickory Smoked BBQ restaurant.

I've been to Ribs a dozen or more times. My sister lives in Los Lunas.

I like TBC's beers more than I like Ribs food. Last night I had the beef brisket for $12.49. It came with two sides. I spent an extra $1.50 to substitute onion rings for one of my sides.

The brisket was sliced paper thin and was on the dry side. You have your choice of BBQ sauce as long as it's what comes in a little cup on your plate. The taste was good. Eight or so smallish onion rings came on a separate plate.

Don't get me wrong, the food is good enough, but not memorable.

Usually the service is fairly attentive; although it wasn't last night. Eight of us surrounded our table hidden behind a partition at one end of the dining room. Two servers showed up rather quickly when we were first seated, soliciting our drink orders. Delivering our drinks, the server took our food orders. The food arrived within a decent period of time, but from then on, we were like the forgotten brigade: beer glasses sat empty and one dinner didn't arrive until after everyone else was nearly finished. I had to finally get up and go find our server to make that happen. No one checked on us once the food runners dropped off the first seven dinners.

Young servers were bustling around the place like ants on picnic plate, but none thought to check on us. Of course we had a party large enough to trigger an automatic 15% tip. Normally we would have added another 5% to that: not last night.

Enough about the food and service, let's talk beer.

I had the Double Plow Oatmeal Stout. It was flavorful with some traces of coffee and malt. I was not disappointed. We were there for happy hour and a pint was $2.50: a bargain by any measure.

My two nieces who were there with me each tried the Haymaker Honey Wheat. I'm not a wheat-beer fan, but they really liked it.

Ribs doesn't seem to market the brewery side of the business very effectively. Of course I come from a region well known for its BBQ, but I think the beer is a bigger draw than the BBQ.

I didn't see any tee-shirts, TBC pint glasses or any other logo merchandise available.

They also made the decision to keep the tanks and plumbing of the brewery out of sight. Granted it doesn't make the beer taste better, but part of the experience is being surrounded by brewery trappings.

By the time we left around 7 PM, the restaurant was buzzing and the parking lot stuffed with vehicles.

Obviously Ribs is doing just fine.