Friday, August 21, 2009

Richard Petty Driving Experience

I had one of the coolest life experiences yesterday. We had just finished morning radio on the Bob and Sheri show in Charlotte and we jumped into a car with our manager. All day we were hearing mentions of this secret lunch that we needed to wear pants and closed toe shoes. I was also told that I needed to bring the flip cam so I knew something was up. I had my suspicions with all these hints and they were 100% right on.

We drove for about 45 minutes and then all of sudden we see the massive Lowe's Motor Speedway in front of us. So we were going to get to go in a NASCAR stock car as part of the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

Our management had set it up for all of us to get a ride in a stock car for 3 laps. If we had more time we could have took the driving school and actually learned how to drive the stock car. I definitely want to go back to the Richard Petty Driving Experience and learn how to drive solo. I don't think I will be going 180 mph like I did as a passenger but it would be fun to drive on the track and shift gears.

The whole experience was just amazing. We got their got signed in and were given little USB key chains that were going to video our 3 lap experience. Every one at the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Charlotte were just so hospitable to us and went the extra mile. They got us fitted into our fire retardant jumps suits and our safety helmets and helped get us into the cars. They hooked us up to a neck brace that connects to the helmet and then strapped us in tight to the 3 point harness inside the racing car.

Getting into a stock car is nothing like jumping into the General Lee especially with that huge helmet on my head (there are no door handles just in case you are wondering) and it takes some wiggling to get your head and body down into the car. I had a second to say hello to driver and thank him for this amazing opportunity and then it was show time.

The driver dropped the hammer down and I felt I was like Cole Trickle in "Days Of Thunder". We started at a dead standstill in the pits and the driver just floored it and started shifting gears as we headed into turn 1. I could not believe that we were accelerating into this massive 24 degree turn. I just held on and took it all in. We hit the back straight away and we were probably a foot off the wall and the driver had it wide open or as fast as he was going to take me which was somewhere between 160-180 mph. Going into the next turn I could see him down shifting but halfway through the the turn he was shifting up again and accelerating. We hit the grandstand straight away and we were probably at top speed racing by the pits. We did this for 3 more laps and then we down shifted into the pits to end this ride.

Oh my god!! You cannot comprehend what those race car drivers go through on a average race. I thought after attending a race in person I had a good perspective but no way. Not until you get in a stock car and go over 150 mph and feel what it is like to hit those high embanked walls and go down the straight ways inches of the walls will you know. I could not do that for 250 laps by myself.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Java Talk - Espresso, Latte And Cappuccino (Part 2)

Starbucks and Caribou cannot compete with the small coffee shop

Ever since Starbucks and Caribou switched all their espresso machines over to fully automatics their drinks have never tasted the same. Both establishments used to use machines where the barista actually needed to know how to make an espresso. The people making the drinks knew how to pull shots of espresso and make the perfect cappuccino. As both companies focused on expansion they made the decision to change all their quality manual machines to automatic ones.

What does this mean?

It means now you put the beans into a hopper and press a button and voila you have an espresso. No more grinding the beans putting them into a portafilter and tamping. Never used an espresso machine and want to work at Starbucks? No big deal because you don't really need to know how to.

What does it mean to you the consumer?

It means you don't get that rich foamy crema on top of your espresso. The drinks also are not as robust as they used to be.

I can guarantee you that if you put a espresso, latte or cappuccino side by side from a small coffee house and one from Starbucks or Caribou there will be a dramatic difference. First the small coffee house will use beans that have been freshly roasted and they will be a lot more oily. All of this will give you a more robust thicker crema. Secondly they are going to pull the perfect shot out of their commercial portafilter machine. Espresso will be strong but smooth and, as for the other drinks - you'll be will wanting seconds and thirds.

I have a lot of coffee friend junkies who now order 4-5 shot drinks at Starbucks because they feel that their lattes are not robust anymore.

Stay tuned my final part of this series will be a video presentation of me making espresso and lattes on my own machine.

Sister Hazel Release Tour Begins - Orlando

We had a good first day on the new record tour.  Our day began at 6:00 am in Orlando Florida.  We had an acoustic performance on the Daily Buzz Television Show.  We have played on the show before and the hosts and staff have always been great to the band.  It was then on to the Mix 105.1 radio station for a webcast performance.  Mixed in between the songs we took questions about the new record and all things Hazel. 

The day finished off with an acoustic performance at Blue Martini hosted by the Mix 105.1.  The place was packed with familiar faces and I think people were excited to hear new music.  We played 3 songs off the new record and it was good to be playing live again.

iTunes Blast

Our new record has been received very well from the online community.  On the first day of its release we have been #1 at Rock and have been up to #8 overall album.  Thanks to everyone who has purchased the new record.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sushi In The ATL (That would be Atlanta)

Just went out tonight and have some great sushi and I thought I would write a post about it.

Atlanta has some good sushi restaurants but to be considered great it has to come down to the fish and how it is served.  In my opinion if you want the best in Atlanta there are only 2 places to go.  

They would be Circle Sushi in Roswell and MF (Magic Fingers) in Midtown.  These 2 places have the best fish in town and their menu is spot on with anything you would see in Japan.  There aren't a bunch of crazy ass fried rolls with gobs of eels sauce in these establishments.  What you will find are California Rolls with real crab meat.  It blows my mind how many sushi restaurants in Atlanta serve California Rolls with imitation crab.  You can't win any awards when you are serving imitation crab.  You will also find Chu Toro which is a mid fatty tuna that is almost impossible to find in the states.  I first got introduce to while I was in Japan and it is my favorite kind of Tuna.  Both of these restaurants get the freshest fish and serve only the best cuts.

I will break them down for you.

Circle Sushi 

It is a little ways outside of town but the drive is worth every minute.  It is located in a strip mall in Roswell but don't let that fool you because this sushi restaurant has the best fish in town.  The atmosphere and decor are very casual and the staff and owner are great people.  They are not trying to wow you over with Pagodas and Dragons but just serve awesome sushi.  The portions of all there fish are the largest that I have experienced in Atlanta.  When you order sashimi a lot of sushi restaurants will make the fish cuts very small but that is not the case at Circle Sushi.  Sometimes you even end up with an extra piece or 2 courtesy of the chef.  They are also very accommodating if you want a roll that is not on the menu they will make it for you.  For all this great sushi the prices are reasonable.

MF (Magic Finger) Sushi

It is located in Midtown Atlanta on Ponce de Leon street.  This is Atlanta's high end sushi restaurant that would be compared to Sushi Roku in LA.  Lots of decor and vibe going on in this restaurant.  They have a solid menu with everything you would expect.  The quality of the fish is superb but the portions are not that large.  This restaurant is probably the most expensive sushi restaurant in Atlanta but you are getting great fish and a very good date place.

Check them out.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Benziger "Tribute" Wine

I opened a 2003 Benziger "Tribute" estate wine this weekend.

I was living in Nashville back in 2001 when a local wine store turned me on to Benziger Wines. Then in 2003 I took my first Napa Valley trip (while I'd say more about that, it could be 10 blog posts so I will save that for another time). On that trip I made a point to visit the Benziger Winery and from that point on it has been one of my favorite places to visit. I have found several wines from Benziger that I just love.

The whole winery is done as an organic operation without the use of pesticides and other chemicals. It is family owned and you can really get a sense that the people who work their truly appreciate wine and the Benziger Family. On the tour you get taken by tractor through the vineyards and get explanations of how they grow the grapes and harvest them. They take you through their large cave and show you how they have all there barrels stored. Outside the caves are their crushing and fermentation tanks as well as their bottling center.

We ended up in the reserve room after the tour and drank several of their wines for about an hour. The reserve rooms of any winery are their hidden gems. You must go and seek these rooms out because this is where you are going to find the wines that you will be drinking for many years to come.

On our next trip to Benziger is when we discovered their "Tribute" estate wine. I personally like very bold red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Bordeaux. The "Tribute" is in the Bordeaux style blend without the Petit Verdot added. It has the 4 other grapes in it and it is a perfect blend. I usually do not like blended Cabernet Sauvignon wines which use 2-3 grapes varieties but there's something about addin the 4th or 5th grape variety that makes it truly special. All the grapes from their "Tribute" are harvested from the same region and vineyard. I love that the "Tribute" is very bold without any tannins.

If you go out to Napa or Sonoma you must go to Benziger, tour their property and indulge in the reserve tasting room. I am a member of their wine club so I get shipments sent to me every other month - a good portion of my wine cellar is now filled with their wine.

Here is a link to the Benziger Winery

Here is a link to the 2006 "Tribute"

Unfortunately I think "Tribute" can only be purchased at the winery or if you happen to live in one of the lucky states to which you can have wine shipped to you directly. Georgia finally can get wine shipped now but we still can't buy wine or beer on Sunday. We will not open that can of worms now because it's a sore spot with me.

Java Talk - Espresso, Latte And Cappuccino (Part 1)

After going to Europe on my honeymoon in 2002 I fully became a java connoisseur and hated the dreaded coffee that I drank for so many years. It was a life turning experience for me because I truly never new what I was missing until I was having cappuccinos and latte's for breakfast and a double espressos after dinner. From France to Rome the java flowed 24/7.

I'd wake up and have like 2 cappuccinos with my croissants and beignets every morning. I could have stayed at the bistro all day long and drank those drinks. In the evening we would have amazing 2-3 hour dinners that we thought would never end. The French and Italians love their multi course dinner extravaganzas. In order to have energy left after these feasts my wife and I would order either 1 or 2 double espressos after dinner. I would usually jack it up another notch with the fancy sugar cubes that they provided with the drinks.

When I arrived home to the States I was done with crappy automatic drip coffee. We had some money left from our wedding gifts and we bought a basic Saeco Espresso machine. It was a good machine that lasted me for several years until it finally needed one to many repairs. It was a good starter machine but as I got more into making coffee drinks I found it had some drawbacks: you could not brew coffee and steam milk at the same time because the boiler could not hold enough hot water. You would also have to wait after brewing coffee for the boiler to heat up again to steam your milk. The portafiler (the piece that attaches to the machine in which you put the coffee) was not a commercial handle but rather a pressurized one. This was good for the beginner because it allowed some leniency when it came to how much coffee and how hard you tamp it down but the downside to the pressurized portafilter handle was that it could not produce the same type of crema (a thick golden brown layer of foam at the top of an espresso) as a manual commercial portafilter.

When the Saeco finally was put to rest I needed to step up my barista and I went with a Expobar Office from Spain which is has a commercial portafilter and a huge boiler that can brew espresso and steam milk at the same time. The Expobar also lets you set brew 4 brew times so your machine will run for a set time then shut off. (I will discuss to this more in a later post on the process of making the perfect espresso.) At the same time I got the Expobar Machine I also purchased a Mazzer Mini Grinder. It allows me to adjust the grind for whatever type of bean I am using.

The Process

Lets talk about how to make the perfect shot of espresso. Espresso is produced by pushing hot water, around 195 degrees F, at 135 pounds per square inch, through a bed of finely ground compacted coffee.

You want to grind up your favorite espresso beans but I would start with grinding only a little bit at first because you might have to alter the fineness of your grind as you will read later.

A single shot is made with about 7 grams of coffee and it should produce around 1- 1.5 ounces of liquid.
A double shot is made with about 14 grams of coffee and it should produce around 1-1.5 ounces of liquid.

First you want to run some hot water through your portafilter to get it nice and hot before you you put the coffee in it.

You want to put your 7 or 14 grams of coffee into your portafilter and then taking your tamper and press down with a good amount of force and give a little turn.

Typically there are guidelines for how long it should take to extract the liquid. These are the typical extraction times.

Single shot of espresso: 1-1.5 ounces: 18-20 seconds
Double shot of espresso: 2-2.5 ounces: 20-25 seconds

The nice thing about my Expobar Office is that once I perfect the grind fineness I can set 4 different brew times. So I can use one for a single shot and one for a double shot. I can program the machine for custom brew times and it will run for either 20 or 25 seconds. So basically I can be on the other side of the kitchen cooking my omelette and not have to run over to shut the espresso machine off after 20 or 25 seconds. Nice feature.

The only way on a commercial portafilter machine to effect the extraction time is to change the pressure that the water exerts on the coffee grounds. The only way to change the pressure is to change the fineness of the coffee grinds or change the tamp pressure on the grinds. This is where you might have to play with the fineness of your grind and how hard you tamp. To further complicate things, as I learned, every bean is quite different and the settings on my grinder for one bean do not work for others. I began sampling many beans and then finally landed on a few I liked and I wrote down my grinder settings for each.

Types Of Coffee Drinks

1. Espress0 - 1 or 2 shots containing 7 or 14 grams of freshly ground coffee. This is brewed to 1-1.5 ounces and 2-2.5 ounces of liquid and extracted within 18-25 seconds. It must have a little crema foam at the top.

2. Macchiato - It is an espresso that has a dash of milk or dense froth added.

3. Cappuccino - It is an espresso that contains steamed milk and foam. The espresso should sit at the bottom then a layer of steamed milk and the top should have a layer of foam from the steam milk.

4. Cafe Latte - It is an espresso that contains steam milk.

5. Cafe Mocha - It is an espresso that has chocolate syrup added to the bottom and then steam milk.

6. American - It is an espresso with hot water added

Be sure to check back later for Part 2 - Starbuck's It Ain't What It Used To Be

And, Part 3 - Video Demonstration of how to make the perfect espresso by me.

Post Surgery 4 Weeks

I have not written a blog post about my knee lately because all has been well and I haven't had any new developments.  This weekend I got on a spinning bike for the first time and actually rode for 35 minutes and broke a sweat.  My knee felt great but even better was to actually feel like I got a cardiovascular workout in.  I have been doing my stretching and trying to loosen up my hamstrings and my Illiotibial band because they have always been tight due to running and playing drums.  I have also been doing leg presses and ball squats to strengthen my quadriceps.  I think I am almost ready to start resuming all leg exercises and get back into yoga as well.  The biggest problem with yoga will be sitting down on my knees.  I don't know when they will want me to start doing that.

I got back on the drums last week for the first time and everything felt fine with using my right leg on the kick drum.  I will be practicing a lot this week and next week getting ready for the tour.  Looking forward to playing shows and playing songs off our new record.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wine - My First Total Wine & More Experience

I have been hearing for years now how I had to check out the wine store "Total Wine & More". They are located up the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey and have stores in Arizona and California. They carry about 8000 wines plus 2000 spirits and 1000 beers. So while I was down in Tampa I made a stop into one of their stores.

I am big into wines so this was going to be a treat to check out so many different wines under one roof. It was kind of going out to Napa and Sonoma without having the wine tastings. They really need to add store tastings to help us people on the East Coast try some new wines without buying a whole bottle.

They definitely cover everything you would want and more from a variety stand point. You have all of your California wines as well as your South American, Australian and European ones covered. I think the biggest think that they try to offer is good wines for relatively cheap prices. There main demographic would be wines under the $15 price point. They carry more expensive ones but I would say that in general they are focusing on good quality affordable wines. This concept is very close to what Trader Joe's does but "Total Wine & More" has so many more wines.

I started looking around to see what they did carry in some of my favorite wines which would be above their $15 price point. Surprisingly they had quite a few of the wines that I like to drink.

Mark's Favorite Wines At Total Wine & More
ZD - Pinot Noir
Beringer - Alluvium (Bordeaux type blend of 5 Grapes)
Beringer - Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Cakebread - Chardonnay
Benziger - Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain Red
Frank's Family - Cabernet Sauvignon

This was a pretty good selection of my favorites because you will not find to many of these in other wine stores. Many of these wines I had to have shipped directly from the wineries. I think Total Wine & More is a good store to find cheap to mid level priced wines and a huge variety of wines.

I am kind of spoiled by living in Atlanta Georgia because while there is a "Total Wine & More" relatively close by, there is a Sherlock's Wine Merchant in walking distance. Sherlock's stock is nothing compared to Total Wine & More from a volume stand point but you will find those hard to find more expensive wines - they are able to get the wines that you either only see in restaurants or at the wineries. Plus if there is something you like they have the ability to call their vendor and get it for you. For example, I really like the Frank's Family Wines and Sherlock's carried just the Zinfadel. I wanted to try the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Pinot Noir so they were able to get me those wines by calling their vendor. They also carry Del Dotto which is almost impossible to find anywhere other than the winery or a restaurant. There are several Sherlock's locations throughout the Atlanta area so if you are in town I highly recommend checking them out.

Look for some future posts on wine - I look forward to turning you on to some of my favorite wines.

Green Day's New Record Is A Masterpiece

I always like to experience a new record on a long car ride listening from top to bottom. It's the only time where I have no distractions to listen to every song in its entirety. Some of my favorite records I heard for the first time in my car driving somewhere with my wife. I listened to them several times on the drive really getting to focus on the music. Some of these are Chalk Farm "Notwithstanding" - Stroke 9 "Nasty Little Thoughts" - U2 "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" - Dave Mathews "Under The Table And Dreaming" - Matchbox 20 "Yourself Or Someone Like You".

A couple of years ago I was driving over to Birmingham and my wife bought the the new Green Day record "American Idiot" for our drive. I was a fan of the band and really liked "Dookie" but I hadn't followed them for a while. I had read some great things about their new concept album and wanted to check it out. I was blown away how they made that concept record and had a new found respect for them.

This week when driving back from Tampa and my wife and I had to get the new Green Day CD "21st Century Breakdown". I was excited to hear this record for so many reasons. The band co -produced the new record with Butch Vig. Butch is the drummer for Garbage and he is also a huge record producer who I greatly respect his work. He has produced Nirvana'a "Nevermind" and Smashing Pumpkins "Siamese Dream" so I was expecting a lot from him on this record and I was not let down. I will get more in depth about the production later.

Green Day took their concept record idea to a whole new level. So much thought went into this record I don't know where to begin. The CD is broken down into 3 acts with a general theme for each act. Many of the songs are multi movements with different feels and tempos. The band really stretches out from their comfort zone and covers many musical styles that they are not known for.

"Before The Lobotomy" is one of my favorites because it starts with this 12 string guitar or a nylon string and Billie Joe singing very intimately. The song then goes into a 7/4 time signature with this cool guitar riff sounding like "Rush". I truly love this part of the song and listened to it many times. They then do a huge tempo slow down and work back to the intimate beginning but this time they use big guitars.

The song "21 1st Century Breakdown" starts with something reminiscent of the band "Big Star". It is a classic sounding pop tune with a great retro sound. It then morphs into something that sounds like the Green Day song "Holiday" with a metal edge. The band then breaks down into something that sounds like the rock anthem Free Bird.

"Know Your Enemy" just freakin' rocks. This is a great energetic rock song that will be awesome live. It is right down the middle of the road for Green Day.

"Last Night On Earth" could have been on a Beatles record. The chord changes and the production sound like something McCartney and Lennon would have written. It is great to hear the band really go places that we have not heard before. There is latin sounding song on the record as well as vaudeville sounding song.

"21 Guns" is the big single on this record. It is a great song in the power rock ballad but for me it is hard to follow up their "Wake Me Up When September Ends". I wish I wrote "Wake Me Up When September Ends" because it was perfect in every way so anything else they write in that style I will always compare it to "Wake Me Up When September Ends".

The production on this record is definitely in my top 3 favorite of all time. Butch Vig gets amazing tones on the drums and guitars and Chris Lord-Alge just blows me away with the mixes. I think Butch really worked well with Green Day and I don't know if it was him or the band that decided to push their comfort zone but it works. I like all the squashed compression and the radio sounding intros and endings. Everything is big and crystal clear.

Chris Lord-Alge did a wonderful job at mixing the whole record. It rocks really hard but there are also great moments of intimacy. I cannot say enough about the drum and guitar sounds. I come to expect that from Chris and his brother Tom. They are the masters of allowing you to hear every little instrument on a song without comprising the overall sound of the track. Chris and his brother Tom are probably the best 2 mixers in the world especially when they actually get a chance to mix a whole record. Most of their time is spent mixing every song on the radio but occasionally they get to mix a whole record.

I highly recommend this record so go buy it.