Wines of Austria


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Wine has been produced in Austria for thousands of years, so it’s not exactly a new industry. But it can be challenging to find Austrian wine in the U.S. Restaurants with an adventurous international wine list will likely have some Austrian wines available by the bottle, and if you find a wine bar with a great sommelier or wine director, you can sample Austrian wines by the glass. The Austrian wine you are most likely to see is Grüner Veltliner (pronounce the “v” like an “f”). It’s THE white wine of Austria, accounting for approximately 30% of Austria’s vineyard acreage. (That might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that the other 21 white grapes grown in Austria account for another 30% combined, it shows how dominant Grüner Veltliner is.)

Grüner Veltliner is a dry, crisp wine that often exhibits a bit of spicy pepperiness. Oaked versions are usually rounder, while unoaked offerings show more minerality. It’s a great food wine but also quite pleasant as an aperitif.

IMG_8924Before we left on our Austrian holiday adventure, my brother and sister-in-law sent us a trio of Austrian wines for Christmas—homework, as they put it. The white was Grüner Veltliner (of course), the red was a blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir, and St. Laurent, and there was a sparkling made from Pinot Noir as well. All three are available at Total Wine.

We began with the Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner Kremser Sandgrube. It was delicious—it had good acidity and tasted of peach and citrus with just the slightest hint of sweetness. We drank it one night with chicken sausages and the next with salmon burgers. It complemented both very well, and even matched with the Brussels sprouts we ate, which is no small accomplishment. (Brussels sprouts and asparagus are typically difficult to pair with wine because of their bitter qualities.)

The Hillinger Small Hill Red Blend was fantastic. Merlot and Pinot Noir are well-known grape varieties, but I had never had St. Laurent before. The wine had a good backbone of tannins without being sharp.

The last of the bunch was Hillinger Secco Pinot Noir Sparkling Rosé. It was well-structured with good acidity balanced by fruit, but not overwhelmingly fruity.

While in Austria, we had surprisingly few opportunities to drink wine. When we were shopping at the Christmas markets, we had Gluwein, punsch, or hot chocolate, and we drank beer or Champagne several times as well. But when we did manage to drink wine, we drank only Austrian varietals. Why go to Austria to drink French wine?

At Gasthaus zur Oper in Vienna, I tried a Blaufränkisch, and my husband had Zweigelt. Blaufränkisch is a red grape common in Austria and Eastern Europe. I enjoyed it, but it was very tannic, which is a hallmark of Blaufränkisch. If you don’t like tannic wines, you will probably not like this one. Btw, when grown in the U.S. (primarily in Washington State and the Finger Lakes district of New York), this grape is called Lemberger.

The Zweigelt, which is also red, was less tannic and had more fruit both on the nose and the palate. The grape is a hybrid of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch, so it shares some characteristics with both, but to a lesser degree. Zweigelt is the most widely planted red wine grape in Austria. Total Wine offers several Austrian Zweigelts and one Blaufränkisch if you’re interested in trying them but can’t go all the way to Austria!

At Die Wilderin in Innsbruck, I experimented with white wines that were not Grüner Veltliner. First I tried a Weissburgunder, then a Grüner Silvaner. The Weissburgunder was smooth and round on the finish with a silky mouthfeel. It was similar to California Chardonnay, but less oaky and buttery. My notes on the Silvaner are less helpful: “The Silvaner was unlike anything I’ve ever had. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Thanks, me of two months ago. Weissburgunder and Grüner Silvaner each accounts for a very small portion of Austria’s wine production, and are exceedingly difficult to find in the States. So you may actually have to go to Austria if you want to try these!

Wine on a train!

Wine on a train!

We also had Grüner Veltliner three times in Austria, and they were all delicious. At our hotel bar in Vienna we had a Weingut Jurtschitsch from Kamptal. On the train from Vienna to Innsbruck (yes, you can buy and drink wine on the train!) we coincidentally had a 2013 Winzer Krems Sandgrube, which was one of the wines from our “homework” assignment. And with Christmas Eve dinner at the Hotel Schwarzer Adler, we had a Domäne Wachau 2014 Federspiel, which you can buy at and BevMo. I recommend them all.

The bottom line is that Austria makes some wonderful wines, both red and white, but white is where they truly excel. If you have an opportunity to sample them for yourself, I suggest you seize it!

P.S. February 18 is National Drink Wine Day, so plan accordingly!


Drinking My Way Through Austria


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Last week’s post on where to find delicious food in Austria was getting a bit long, so I decided to do a separate post on the wonderful drinking establishments we discovered.

Salzburg Christmas market

Salzburg Christmas market

At Christmastime, drinking in Austria, especially Vienna, could not be easier. All you have to do is find a Christmas market. Even the smaller towns have at least one market, and Vienna has nearly a dozen. After visiting one or two, we quickly realized that the primary appeal of the markets to the locals is the drinking. Especially after sundown (which is around 4:30 p.m. during the winter), the markets are jammed with people standing with friends, hot beverage in hand, talking and (unfortunately) smoking.

The Europeans seem to have not yet grasped the deathly implications of smoking. Their cancer sticks are everywhere. The markets are outdoors, which helps the smoke dissipate, but it’s still a nightmare environment for non-smokers. The smokers mostly stand still though, so if you keep moving, you’re better off.

A festive boot mug

A festive boot mug

The markets are made up of vendor stalls selling food, drinks, and trinkets. Hot beverages are the order of the day, and you can find alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. Gluhwein is one of the most popular. It’s essentially mulled wine, usually red (rot) but sometimes white (weiss) as well. Also very popular is punsch, which is a sweet, fruity liqueur served hot. It comes in a variety of flavors, mostly citrus. Gluhwein and punsch are served in festive mugs (some in the shape of boots). You pay a €2.50 deposit for the mug, on top of the €4 for the beverage. The locals almost certainly return all their mugs; we brought home several as souvenirs.

Because I am not a fan of hot or sweet alcoholic beverages, I enjoyed copious amounts of hot chocolate (heisse schokolade)—sometimes with whipped cream on top (mit schlagsahne or mit sahne). It was a decadent 10 days! FYI, mit schuss means “with a shot.” You’ll see that on a lot of menu boards. Sadly, the hot chocolate is served in regular paper cups. Not nearly as festive as the little boots.

If you prefer to do your drinking indoors, there are plenty of opportunities for that as well, but again, be prepared to deal with smoke. Bars and restaurants are hit or miss on banning smoking. Some still have “smoking sections,” despite the obvious flaws in that plan. Some allow smoking only on the patio, so you’re safe inside. But smoking is still decidedly allowed inside places that are more “bar” than “restaurant.” I had to leave one biergarten in Salzburg because the smoke was making me physically ill.

Wall of Champagne at Le Cru

Wall of Champagne at Le Cru

My favorite find in Vienna was a Champagne bar called Le Cru. They have a rotating selection of Champagne by the glass, but the real attraction is the ability to buy a bottle or half-bottle at retail (not the 200-300% restaurant markup) and consume it onsite. Le Cru’s variety and selection is stunning, and if it hadn’t been our last night in town when we discovered it, we definitely would have made a return visit or two. The staff were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and it was a quiet, classy environment. I also loved the crispy breadsticks they provide for munching while drinking.

Post-Opera fanciness

Post-Opera fanciness

If you’re a fan of Moët & Chandon, check out Le Moët Champagne Bar, which is part of Le Meridien‘s Vienna location. We visited after attending the Vienna Opera, when we were feeling fancy in our formalwear. The selection is limited due to their only featuring Moët & Chandon Champagnes (and one that’s not—Krug Grand Cuvée—thanks to Krug and Moët & Chandon both being owned by the LVMH conglomerate). The by-the-glass pricing is reasonable as far as these things go (by-the-glass pricing is never objectively “reasonable”), but the bottle pricing reflects a 120-200% markup over retail. I would call their food expensive, so don’t go hungry unless you’re prepared to spend a lot.

The entrance to Julius Meinl

The entrance to Julius Meinl

Our experience at Julius Meinl Wine Bar was a bit of a mixed bag. They get an A for selection and ambiance but a D for service. Our waiter was basically incompetent and never brought the appetizer we ordered. Never apologized either; just plain forgot. Much like Le Cru, at Julius Meinl you can purchase a bottle from the shelf at retail prices and consume it on the premises. They also have a by-the-glass menu. If you stick with Austrian wines, the prices are actually quite good. The wine bar is located at cellar-level, below the Julius Meinl gourmet market.

Last week I mentioned Gulasch & Champagne, which I recommend for a hearty beef-based meal and a festive glass of Champagne.

At Salm Brau

At Salm Brau

And Salm Bräu in Vienna is a great place for beer (and sausage and pretzels), as is the Augustiner Brewery in Salzburg. Austria is a beer-loving country, so there’s really no shortage of places to go for a brewski.

Stay tuned until next time, when I’ll review the wines of Austria…


At Le Cru

Eating My Way Through Austria


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It’s my anniversary! Two years of publishing Risa’s Pieces. Thanks to everyone for continuing to read! This is also my 100th post! If I were a network television show, I’d be eligible for syndication. That’s pretty exciting!

Now that I’ve almost recovered from the longest lingering ear infection ever, and survived Blizzard2016, it’s time to start sharing tales of our holiday trip to Austria. I thought I would begin with everyone’s favorite topic: food!

Vienna in particular is famous for two things: Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte. In German, Vienna is called Wien (the “w” makes a “v” sound), so the word Wiener basically means Viennese. Schnitzel involves very thin cutlets of meat, breaded and fried. Classic Wiener Schnitzel is made with veal, but it’s equally delicious made with pork.

IMG_9218Wiener Schnitzel is unsurprisingly very easy to find at restaurants throughout Vienna. The schnitzel itself is yummy, but I was less impressed with its ubiquitous partner: parsleyed potatoes. The side dish is basically cold chunks of potato with vinegar and parsley. It’s something approaching potato salad, but not quite. And that’s all you get: schnitzel and cold potatoes. Green vegetables seem to not exist in Austria, at least not in the winter. I didn’t see any the entire time we were there! I was also disappointed that schnitzel was not served with noodles, as it generally is in the U.S. (and as mentioned in the song My Favorite Things—Julie Andrews lied to me!).

IMG_9203Sachertorte, on the other hand, is a cake (“torte”) invented by Franz Sacher and made famous by the Sacher Hotel and Café Demel, which were involved in a prolonged legal dispute in the early-to-mid-twentieth century over whose recipe was the “original.” I’m honestly not sure why all the fuss, because the cake wasn’t even that good! We had ours at Café Demel, and while the café itself was charming, and the hot chocolate was decadent, the cake was a bit dry and not that flavorful. It also had a very thick layer of chocolate ganache on top that was overly sweet. It’s not just me being a hater either! My husband was also ambivalent about it, and so are some others I know who have tried it. We all prefer Austria’s other traditional dessert: apfelstrudel!

Apfelstrudel is apple strudel, and IT. IS. AMAZING. In the 11 days we spent in Austria, I think I ate apfelstrudel five or six times. It’s so much better than strudel you get in the States. IMG_9615It’s bursting with apples, the crust is firm but flaky, and the flavor is abundant. The best apfelstrudel I had was from a place called Café Braun in the town of Mondsee, outside of Salzburg. We were on the Sound of Music tour, which travels up to the lake country and Mondsee because that’s the location of the cathedral where Captain von Trapp and Maria were married. Our tour guide said that Café Braun’s apfelstrudel is the second best in Austria (the best would be his mother’s, of course!), and I think he’s probably right. If you ever have a chance to eat it, I highly recommend it. The view didn’t hurt either!

Another classic Austrian dish is tafelspitz, which is elaborate but delicious. I had never heard of it before our trip, but apparently it’s the national dish of Austria. We ate at a well-known restaurant called Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper before attending a performance at the Vienna Opera House, and tafelspitz is one of their specialties. IMG_9219(Even our Uber driver recommended it as a must-eat.) I really wanted the Wiener Schnitzel, so I left the tafelspitz to my husband. It is essentially a bone marrow broth with root vegetables and a large hunk of beef, along with potatoes, of course. (I’m pretty sure potatoes are the unofficial side dish of Austria.) The broth was just amazing—so rich and flavorful. The word tafelspitz is the Austrians’ word for the cut of beef (usually ox) that is used in the dish. It’s similar to a standing rump or top round cut in the U.S.

IMG_9305Speaking of broth, the Austrians have mad skills when it comes to broth. I had it twice in Innsbruck, with different accompaniments, and it was magnificent both times. On Nordkette mountain, we ate at the Seegrube, which is about halfway up the mountain at 6500 feet (2000 meters). I ordered the broth with a bacon dumpling. Let me tell you, if you’ve never had a bacon dumpling, you should remedy that situation immediately!

We stumbled upon a restaurant called die Wilderin in the old town of Innsbruck—cannot recommend this place enough. It’s nose-to-tail, locally sourced, organic cuisine at its finest. IMG_9283A little piece of hipster Brooklyn in the heart of the Alps! Their menu changes based on what’s available, but I think you probably can’t go wrong with anything they serve. I started with the duck consommé with thin pancake strips. Pancakes seemed like a really weird thing to put in broth, but it turned out to be scrumptious. My pumpkin apple risotto was perfect, and my husband’s lamb chops were the biggest we’d ever seen. I basically wanted to eat everything on the menu but had to settle for an appetizer, entrée, dessert, wine, and whisky. :O

IMG_9016One word of warning: not everything in Austrian cuisine is what you think it is. Take goulash, for instance. It’s a traditional Hungarian dish, and Vienna is very close to Hungary, so there are a lot of imported foods. When I was a kid, my mom made goulash with tomato sauce, ground beef, and elbow macaroni. According to Wikipedia, that’s kind of the “traditional” U.S. version. So when we walked past a restaurant called Gulasch & Champagne, I definitely wanted to check it out. Turns out Austrian gulasch is pretty much just large hunks of meat in meat sauce served with bread. Don’t get me wrong—it’s yummy, but it’s not even remotely what I was expecting! The restaurant was tiny and adorable though, and the variety of Champagnes available by the glass was impressive.

IMG_9045Falling into the category of exactly what I was expecting were the pretzels and beer. My Vienna guide book (Top 10 Vienna) had recommended Salm Bräu in Vienna for lunch, and it did not disappoint. The beer, the pretzels, the sausages—everything was delicious. We also greatly enjoyed the beer and pretzels at the Augustiner Brewery in Salzburg. They only serve one type of beer. You grab an empty ceramic stein from a shelf (liter or half-liter) pay the cashier a few Euros, depending on which size stein you chose, then visit the men with the casks. They fill up your stein and send you on your way. A number of food vendors line the perimeter, offering whatever beer-appropriate accompaniments you can imagine.

IMG_9156The options for tea in Vienna are also pretty good—not as ubiquitous as London, of course, but still plentiful. Our hotel, the Intercontinental, offered an afternoon tea service which was lovely, but too much food by far. Usually, if you order afternoon tea for two, each person chooses their own pot of tea, and then the (single) sandwich, scone, dessert tray has enough of everything for two people. At the Intercontinental, each person gets their own pot of tea and their own tiered tray with enough food for two, so you’re really getting enough food for four! It was kind of insane. We also discovered a very cute tea house (again, from the Top 10 Vienna book) called Haas & Haas. It’s very near Stephansdom, so we went there for breakfast one morning before touring the cathedral. It was almost a problem that we didn’t have a reservation (for breakfast! on a Monday!) but they managed to seat us. Everything was delicious, and all their teas are available for purchase in the adjacent shop.

While I’m on the subject, I should note that reservations are VERY IMPORTANT in Austria! There were nights when we had to visit upwards of five restaurants to find one that would take us without a reservation. And not just in Vienna—Innsbruck and Salzburg were the same way. Making reservations as a tourist is almost impossible because you never really know when you’ll be tired and hungry and where in the city you’ll be. My best recommendation is when you’re walking around and it’s about 5 p.m., start looking for places that seem interesting. Then walk in and make a reservation for a couple of hours later. Just remember where the restaurant is so you can get back!

IMG_9841The only reservations I made in advance were for dinner the night we went to the opera, and Christmas Eve. We were in Innsbruck for Christmas Eve, and most of the hotels and some restaurants offer a prix-fixe holiday menu. We attended the Hotel Schwarzer Adler‘s dinner, and it was phenomenal. We arrived just after 6 p.m. for an aperitif in the cellar. Around 6:30 we were all escorted to the dining room, which was decorated very seasonally, including a large Christmas tree with actual candles on it (that were lit! try getting away with that fire hazard in America!). Dinner was supposed to be five courses, but there was an amuse-bouche that was really more like a sixth courses. The only thing I didn’t care for was the wild fowl terrine, which was sort of a poultry paté. I found it dry and unappetizing, but I’m not a fan of paté to begin with. Before the dessert course the family that owns the hotel made a little speech, and then we all sang Silent Night, Holy Night, first in German, then in English (lyrics were provided)! It was without a doubt one of my more memorable Christmas Eves. Also one of the longest—we didn’t leave the hotel until 11 pm!

All in all, we ate very well in Austria, although the lack of vegetables did become tedious. I recommend all of the restaurants mentioned in this post, and would happily return to any of them. I’ll leave you with a few more photos of the many decadent meals we enjoyed.


Pumpkin apple risotto at die Wilderin.


Hot chocolate at Café Demel.


Housemade yogurt at Café Demel.


Smoked venison salad at The Seegrube on Nordkette mountain.


Hot chocolate at the ski resort café on Stubaier Gletscher.


Breakfast meat plate at Café Pamina in Salzburg.


Scrambled eggs and the ubiquitous brown bread at Café Pamina.


Oxtail ragout at Messer + Gabel in Salzburg.


Veal loin at Hotel Schwarzer Adler.


Christmas Eve dessert at Hotel Schwarzer Adler.

Boozy Homemade Eggnog


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IMG_9743Happy New Year! I’m back from Austria and have kicked off 2016 much the same way I kick off every new year—by being sick. I guess you can’t survive three airports and 12 hours flying on airplanes without the germs getting you. I plan to write about Austria soon, but I don’t have the energy for it this week. Instead, I’ll share this easy recipe for eggnog that we made last weekend.

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is eggnog. And to me, the holiday season lasts from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but apparently the DC-area grocery stores think it ends at Christmas. In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, no one still had eggnog on their shelves. I wanted eggnog, dammit, so we decided to make our own.

Google “homemade eggnog” and the results will be plentiful. There are two basic camps to making eggnog—raw eggs or cooked eggs. Eating raw eggs can result in salmonella, which is not something I’m really willing to gamble on, so we used a cooked-egg version. The main thing you need to be careful of is not combining the hot milk with the cold eggs too quickly; otherwise, you could curdle the eggs, ruining your recipe.

You will also find a number of recipes that don’t include alcohol. Where’s the fun in that? Besides adding kick and flavor, the alcohol also serves as a preservative. Homemade eggnog without alcohol should be consumed within 24 hours. With alcohol, it can last a week or more.

This recipe that I found on yields 12 servings, so we cut it in half. You can use either bourbon or rum, but we had a new bottle of Appleton rum on hand, so we used that. Note that the recipe calls for “light” cream, not “heavy” cream. I accidentally bought heavy cream, and we had to mix it with milk to cut the fat content. I also recommend using a hand mixer to beat the egg yolks and sugar, rather than whisking. It takes a lot of elbow grease to hand-whisk egg yolks until fluffy.

My husband and I made this together—he handled heating the milk while I worked on beating the egg yolks. If you’re making it by yourself, I recommend beating the egg yolks first and setting them aside, then working on the milk. That way you can mix them together as soon as the milk mixture has boiled.


4 cups milk
5 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups light rum
4 cups light cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Combine milk, cloves, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and cinnamon in a saucepan. Heat over lowest setting for 5 minutes. Gradually raise the heat to bring milk mixture to a boil.

In a large bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar. Whisk together until fluffy. Whisk hot milk mixture slowly into the eggs. Pour mixture back into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes, or until thick. Do not allow mixture to boil. Strain to remove cloves and let cool for about 1 hour.

Stir in rum, cream, 2 teaspoons vanilla, and nutmeg. Refrigerate overnight before serving.

The resulting ‘nog is rich, creamy, and will knock your socks off. I believe my exact words were, “Whoa, Nelly! That’s got some kick!” Maybe all the rum will finally kick this cold’s ass. It’s worth a shot, right?

Holiday Champagne!


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This will be my last post of 2015, so I thought I would give a few quick Champagne and sparkling wine recommendations for the upcoming holidays. As a reminder, it’s only Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Anything else is sparkling wine!

Veuve Clicquot

VeuveIf you want the real McCoy, but you don’t drink a lot of Champagne and don’t know what to buy, I recommend Veuve Clicquot Brut—look for the yellow label. It’s rather fruit-forward as far as Champagne goes, but you still get some of the classic brioche flavor on the back-end. It’s made from predominantly Pinot Noir Grapes (50-55%), with the other half being a combination of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. Its average price in the U.S. is $59, but you can certainly find it for less. Total Wine sells it for $41.97, and has it for $54.99. If you’re in the DC area, Calvert Woodley often has it on sale for $42.99.


TaittingerIf you’re looking for higher levels of minerality in your Champagne, try Taittinger Brut Réserve (or Brut La Française, as it is more commonly found in the U.S.). It’s a 40% Chardonnay/60% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier blend, and has peach, floral, and vanilla notes. Average U.S. price is $53, but Total Wine’s price is $38.99 and sells it for $49.99.

Gloria Ferrer

My favorite California sparkling producer is Gloria Ferrer. I’ve recommended their Blanc de Noirs before, and it remains one of my favorites, but the Royal Cuvée Brut is another delicious choice. GloriaIt’s a vintage sparkler (meaning the grapes are all harvested from the same year) made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The wine is aged for eight years, so the 2007 vintage is just now being released. You can also still find the 2006 vintage. It’s fruity and lightly minerally, with apple, pear, and cherry flavors. Total Wine carries it for $28.99, which is its average U.S. price. I don’t recommend buying it from unless you can find it on sale, because their regular price on it is high—$57.99. It pays to shop around!



FreixenetIf you’re looking for a really inexpensive option, I recommend Freixenet (Fresh-a-net) Cordon Negro Brut Cava, in the black bottle. It’s made from native Spanish grapes Macabeu, Xarel-lo, and Parellada and has flavors of pear, apple, and citrus. It’s excellent on its own, but it also makes great mimosas and champagne cocktails. With an average retail price of $11, it’s perfect for a party. Total Wine carries it for $7.97, and‘s price is $11.99.

I’m off to Austria for the holidays—I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Looking forward to writing more reviews and recommendations in 2016, including reports on my Austria trip. Cheers!

In re: Qtica Smart Spa Lemon Dream Sugar Scrub


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Lemon_Dream_Sugar_Scrub_7oz_450I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Denver, where it was snowy and bitterly cold. My hands and face took a beating and were drier than usual upon my return. Fortunately, I had just received a new product from Zoya the week before—their Qtica Smart Spa Lemon Dream Sugar Scrub. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

I received a free full-size 7-ounce tube with a (rather large) nail polish purchase. I love it when brands throw in freebies! And this product is as fantastic as it sounds. It’s definitely the kind of treatment you would expect to find in a spa or high-end nail salon.

As the name indicates, it’s a citrus-scented sugar scrub designed to exfoliate your skin. You can use it on hands, feet, or body. I plan to make it a regular part of my weekly at-home manicures. It left my hands feeling silky smooth and moisturized, even before I followed up with hand cream. It’s paraben-free and not tested on animals. And because the exfoliating factor is sugar rather than microbeads, it won’t cause environmental damage.

In fact, sugar and sea salt are two common household items that you can use to make your own exfoliating scrub. Williams-Sonoma used to sell a sea salt hand scrub, but as far as I can tell, they no longer do. It was great after a long day of baking or cooking, when your hands are constantly being washed. When I run out of my Qtica scrub, I think I’ll make one of these easy recipes!

Citrus Salt Scrub

1/2 cup sea salt
1/2 cup oil (olive, jojoba, almond, etc.)
1 teaspoon citrus zest (orange, lemon, grapefruit, etc.)

Mix together. Apply to hands, feet, or body (in the shower), massaging to exfoliate, then rinse.

Vanilla Coconut Brown Sugar Scrub

1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix together. Apply to hands, feet, or body, massaging to exfoliate, then rinse. (Or use it to garnish your ice cream!)

Peppermint Sugar Lip Scrub

1 teaspoon coconut oil
2 teaspoons superfine sugar (you can make your own by processing regular granulated sugar in a food processor or Vitamix)
3-4 drops peppermint extract or essential oil

Mix together. Apply to lips, scrub gently, then rinse (or wipe it off, or eat it!).

See here and here for even more recipe ideas. With just olive oil, sea salt or sugar, and essential oils, you can make yourself an entire variety pack of exfoliating scrubs!

Thanksgiving Cocktails


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If you’re not going to serve wine at Thanksgiving (gasp!) and you’re looking for some festive cocktail ideas, I’m here to help.

The first three cocktails below were featured in my latest email newsletter from PA Fine Wine & Good Spirits. If you live in Pennsylvania and you’re not subscribing to their email list, you’re missing out! Besides recipes, they send out coupons and special inventory that’s not available in stores.

The Champagne Punch recipe is from good old Martha Stewart.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Blood Orange Pomegranate Margarita

1 oz. tequila blanco
1 oz pomegranate juice
1 oz. blood orange juice
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 T. agave nectar
1 T. pomegranate seeds
1 blood orange wedge
Kosher salt

Rim a margarita or rocks glass with blood orange wedge and salt; set aside. Combine remaining ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and pour into prepared glass. Garnish with blood orange wedge.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Bourbon Pecan Pie Martini

1 1/2 oz. hazelnut liqueur
1 1/4 oz. amaretto
1/2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. French vanilla creamer
1/2 t. brown sugar
Caramel sauce, for garnish

Swirl caramel sauce on the inside of a martini glass; set aside. Combine remaining ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into prepared glass.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Photo from Fine Wine & Good Spirits website.

Clover Honey Club

2 1/2 cups Bluecoat gin
1 lemon, juiced
1 1/4 cups honey syrup
1 lb. fresh raspberries
5 sprigs rosemary
Egg whites, optional

Chill all ingredients and combine the first five in a large pitcher or punch bowl; stir gently. To serve, pour 4 ounces of prepared cocktail into a shaker filled with ice and add one egg white. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Serves 10.

Photo from Martha Stewart website.

Photo from Martha Stewart website.

Cranberry, Tangerine, Pomegranate Champagne Punch

1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 bunch mint
2 cups freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (about 5 pomegranates)
3 cups freshly squeezed tangerine juice (about 7 tangerines)
5 cups cranberry juice cocktail
2 750-ml bottles Champagne or sparkling wine
20 small wooden skewers

Spear three cranberries alternately with two mint leaves on each wooden skewer. Place skewers on a baking sheet; cover with damp paper towels, and refrigerate up to one hour.

In a large punch bowl, stir together fruit juices. Fill glasses with ice, and ladle about 1/2 cup of punch into each glass. Top with Champagne or sparkling wine. Garnish each glass with a swizzle stick.

Whatever you’re drinking tomorrow, I hope it’s festive! Happy Thanksgiving!

Traditional Thanksgiving Wines From Untraditional Locales


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Last year I wrote a (very long) post about Thanksgiving wines. I’m going to be less wordy this year and merely recommend three varietals. I’m sticking with traditional Thanksgiving wines—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a sparkling—but from countries you might not expect. These wines will bring a little international flair to your Thanksgiving table.

South African Chardonnay

South African wine country is concentrated on the southwestern tip of the country, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Known as the Western Cape, this area’s best-known city is Capetown. The area has a climate similar to the Mediterranean, with mountains, valleys, and ocean breezes that create the right conditions for grape-growing.

Wine grapes have been grown in South Africa since 1655; however, only since apartheid ended in the 1990s have South African wines been available worldwide. According to the trade group Wines of South Africa (WOSA), South Africa produced 4.2 percent of the world’s wine in 2014 and ranks seventh in terms of wine production. Over three dozen varietals are grown in South Africa, but only between five and seven percent of South Africa’s total wine exports reach the U.S., so to truly appreciate South Africa’s wines, you would have to travel there.

Glen CarlouBut to get you started, I recommend Glen Carlou Chardonnay, which is widely available in the States. Chardonnay is weightier than many other white wines, and can hold up against the bounty of flavors generally found on a Thanksgiving menu. The Glen Carlou Chardonnay is fermented in French oak and aged “on the lees” (lees is the yeast residue, or dead yeast, that settles after fermentation).

Expect a creamy, voluptuous mouth-feel with lots of stone fruits and citrus on the palate, and a hint of vanilla. Glen Carlou is available at for $19.99, but check your local wine shops too, because the average price in the U.S. is around $15.

New Zealand Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is my favorite Thanksgiving wine. I usually choose one from California or Burgundy, but New Zealand is producing some surprisingly good Pinot Noir these days.

Pinot Noir is a cool-climate grape, so the island nation of New Zealand, where no vineyard is more than 80 miles from the ocean and its cool breezes, makes a lot of sense as a growing region. Marlborough and Central Otago, both on New Zealand’s southern island, are the two most widely planted Pinot Noir areas, but it is grown throughout the country.

New Zealand Pinot Noir tends to be very fruit-driven, with a lot of ripe berry and red stone fruit flavor. A good representative of the style is Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir. It has gentle tannins, making it a great accompaniment for food, but isn’t so powerful that it will overwhelm a lighter meat like turkey. bottle_pinotOyster Bay ferments its Pinot Noir in both new and older French oak, as well as in stainless steel tanks, giving it a nice balance of acidity and structure. It fairly bursts with cherry and plum flavors.

In 2014, around 25 percent of New Zealand wine exports went to the U.S., making wines from New Zealand rather easy to find here. The majority of those wines are Sauvignon Blanc (66 percent of New Zealand vineyards are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, versus only 8 percent to Pinot Noir), but NZ Pinot is getting easier to find. currently sells the Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir for $16.99, Total Wine has it for $11.49, and the average U.S. price is around $15.

Crémant de Bourgogne

The most famous sparkling wine, of course, is Champagne, from the Champagne region of France. But did you know that other regions of France also make sparkling wine? By law, the wines cannot be called Champagne because they are not made in Champagne. Instead, they are called Crémant de [region]. Crémant de Bourgogne (from Burgundy) and Crémant d’Alsace (from Alsace) are the two you are most likely to see in the U.S.

I discovered Crémant de Bourgogne during law school when I had to satisfy my Champagne tastes on a shoe-string budget. BouillotTotal Wine carries a delicious Louis Bouillot Perle d’Aurore rosé Crémant de Bourgogne that became my go-to sparkler for those dark years. At $18.99 a bottle, it’s good for special occasions without breaking the bank.

Much like Champagne, Crémant de Bourgogne is made primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Instead of Pinot Meunier, however, the additional grapes used are Gamay (the red grape of Beaujolais), Aligoté, Melon, and Sacy. Crémant de Bourgogne can be blanc de blancs (white in color, made from all white grapes), blanc de noirs (white in color, made from all red grapes), rosé (pink in color, made from all red grapes), or blanc (white in color, made from both white and red grapes).

The Louis Bouillot rosé is made from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. It’s loaded with red fruits like strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, and has delicate bubbles and a substantial mouth-feel. It’s perfect as an aperitif (before-dinner drink) to stimulate the appetite, but it’s substantial enough to serve with the Thanksgiving meal.

Lastly, tomorrow is Beaujolais Nouveau Day, so if you’re a fan, head to the wine store this weekend.

No matter what type of wine you serve, I wish you a bountiful Thanksgiving!

OMG! Your Nail Polish is Killing You! (No, it’s not.)


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IMG_7965Is your nail polish making you fat? Or slowly poisoning you to death? If recent headlines are to be believed, the answer to both of those questions is yes. You probably saw some of the news coverage of a recent study by Duke University* and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on an ingredient called Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP or TPP) in nail polish. Here’s the original EWG article, which I found out about when my friend Kim sent it to me the day before the beauty internet exploded in panic.

I’m not a fan of hyperbole in the news, and I despise click-bait. The Chicken Little approach to reporting on scientific studies leaves a lot to be desired. I also have mixed feelings about EWG. They tend to overstate their case. Rather than being a disinterested consumer watchdog group, they have an agenda and aren’t above using deceptive language to support that agenda.

This TPHP situation is a good example. To read EWG’s take on it, painting your nails one time with a polish containing TPHP is akin to signing your own death warrant. It’s really not, as you can read in multiple items debunking EWG’s hysteria. (See here, here, and here. That last link contains chemical analysis and diagrams of molecules, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

TPHP is a plasticizing agent—it helps make the polish flexible enough to apply to your nails. It performs a task similar to Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), which has largely been eliminated from nail polish. (DBP is one of the big 3 toxic ingredients—when you see “3-Free,” it’s referring to DBP, Toluene, and Formaldehyde. “5-Free” polishes also eliminate Camphor and Formaldehyde Residue.)

The health concern over TPHP is that animal studies have shown that it can disrupt the endocrine system. This is a problem because endocrine disruptors can negatively affect reproductive, neurological, and immune systems. (The reason you likely buy plastic bottles labeled “BPA-free” is that BPA (bisphenol A) is also an endocrine disruptor.)

TPHP is prevalent in our everyday environment. The study found traces of TPHP in the subjects’ urine during the baseline tests, and found 6.3 times more of the chemical after the subjects painted their nails. That might sound like a big increase; however, the amount present before applying nail polish was almost negligible, so 6.3 times that amount is still almost negligible.

IMG_6025Fingernails are mostly impervious to molecules; therefore, it is very unlikely that anything showing up in your body got there by being absorbed through your fingernails. A more likely scenario is for chemicals to be absorbed through your skin. Obviously you’re not supposed to paint your cuticles when you paint your nails, but not everyone is a professional manicurist—it happens. It’s also possible for chemicals to be inhaled, but in the study, subjects wearing gloves and applying polish to synthetic nails didn’t experience the same increase in TPHP levels, making it unlikely that the chemical was inhaled.

Brands that were listed as containing TPHP include some of my favorites, including OPI, Sally Hansen, butter LONDON, Essie, and Orly. (Although an asterisk on butter LONDON indicates that the brand contacted EWG to let them know that they stopped producing polish with TPHP in 2014.)

The EWG database where one can supposedly check the safety of thousands of nail polish products is almost unusable. Searching seems to result either in no data or way too much data. I tried test searches for Zoya and OPI and found nothing useful.

Searching Zoya under “brand” resulted in no results. Searching Zoya under “everything” brought up three items, all nail polish removers. Searching OPI under “brand” resulted in 299 products, and searching OPI under “everything” returned an unmanageable number of results. Even with the 299 hits under “brand,” you have to look at each individual product to find anything useful, and you still can’t actually get an ingredients list. You just get EWG’s rating of whether the product is Low Hazard, Moderate Hazard, or High Hazard.

To find out if brands I like and use contain TPHP, I went straight to the horse’s mouth and contacted Zoya, China Glaze, Sephora, Orly, Deborah Lippmann, Ciate, and Seche Vite. After more than a week, I didn’t hear back from China Glaze, Orly, or Seche Vite. Here are the responses I did receive:

Zoya: “Thank you for your inquiry. We do not have the ingredient TPHP OR TPP in our polish. Thank you for the article. Have a beautiful day!”

TPHP-free quick dry top coat

TPHP-free quick dry top coat

Deborah Lippmann: Thank you for your interest in the Deborah Lippmann brand. We are committed to customer satisfaction and, above all, customer safety. As such, upon learning of the Duke University and Environmental Working Group’s study on potential hazards of Triphenyl Phosphate, we immediately evaluated our formulas and found that the majority of our nail colors and treatments are free of Triphenyl Phosphate. As for the select few nail colors and treatments that happen to contain Triphenyl Phosphate, we are looking into alternative formulations as soon as possible. We appreciate your understanding in this matter as we work towards a swift transition. If there is a particular color you are interested in please let me know and I can find out if it has TPHP in it.”

Ciate: “Thank you for your email and your interest in Ciate. All of Ciate nail polishes that are made in UK and US have TPHP, however all of the nail polishes made in Luxembourg are TPHP free. Hopefully soon we will only have nail polishes made in Luxembourg, so if you are interested in buying something right now it is safe for you to purchase the Broken Ballerina Collection and Mini Mani Month. However, we will have new collections coming out for spring/summer that will be made in Luxembourg which means they will not have TPHP.”

Sephora: Weirdly, their reply email instructed me to contact them via phone. First I had to explain what I wanted to the customer service representative, then I had to hold while she got a Beauty Advisor for me, then I had to explain what I wanted to the Beauty Advisor, then I had to hold while she looked it up. THAT’S NOT HOW YOU CUSTOMER SERVICE, SEPHORA!

Eventually, I was advised that the Sephora Formula X polishes do not contain TPHP. While I was on hold with them, I pulled up their website, and it turns out that they list the ingredients for their products right there on the site. If only I had known that sooner! Of note, the Formula X Shine top coat DOES contain TPHP.

IMG_6947Here’s my advice to you. If you want to limit the number of potentially toxic chemicals you come into contact with, use a brand that goes out of its way to emphasize its toxin-free formula, like Zoya or Ginger + Liz. When in doubt, just ask your favorite brand about their ingredients. Now that a spotlight is shining on TPHP, many brands will likely begin the search for a replacement plasticizer. But eliminating DBP is how we ended up with TPHP, so it seems likely we’ll be having this same conversation in five years about whatever replaces TPHP.

If you really love a brand that does contain TPHP, don’t worry too much about it. Either work on developing a steady hand so you don’t end up with nail polish on your cuticles, or use a nail clean-up tool after your manicure, like a pen or a brush. (Or get your nails done by a professional. But spending time in nail salons comes with its own hazards.)

And when you see reports about the latest thing that will kill you, whether it’s your nail polish or eating bacon, take them with a generous grain of salt. Everything—even water—will kill you in a high enough quantity.

*Full Disclosure: I went to law school at Duke, but I have no continuing affiliation with the University or its research teams.


Facial Serum Battle Royale


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Facial serums: useful skin-care product or waste of money? Hard to say for sure. I’ve used several over the past couple of years, and it seems that none of them have made a noticeable impact on my skin. I do enjoy the extra hydration in the fall/winter/spring though, and a vitamin boost never hurts. Here’s a round-up of the ones I’ve used.

Chanel Le Blanc Serum Clarite

Chanel serumMy mom and I hired a Chanel makeup artist to do our makeup for my brother Matt’s wedding last month. As a test-drive, she gave us complimentary makeovers at the Chanel counter. I don’t normally buy Chanel because it’s expensive, it’s not cruelty-free, and the company is not forthcoming about its ingredients or environmental impact. That said, I did buy a lip stain and a mascara after the makeover because that’s kind of the understood quid pro quo. With my purchase I received a sample of their Le Blanc Serum Clarite.

My impression of the serum is a decided, “Meh.” The consistency is very thin (which I don’t like, but you might), and it absorbs quickly. It has a very pleasant, light fragrance, somewhat perfume-y. The sample lasted a surprisingly long time—I used it every day for several weeks. But in the end, I didn’t notice any improvement in how my skin looked or felt.

The product write-up says that it’s a brightening serum, meant to “diminish the look of dark spots, while evening, smoothing, and soothing skin.” Well I don’t have any dark spots, and my skin tone is pretty even to begin with. Maybe someone with dark spots would notice improvement upon using this serum regularly, but I’m always skeptical of skin-care product claims.

And here’s the real kicker: this serum costs $195 for 1.7 ounces! There is no way I would pay that much for a skin-care product. No way. I don’t care what it does.

Lanoliné Manuka Honey Skin Renew Firming Serum

Manuka Honey serumRegular readers know I’m a big fan of Marshalls. I pick up a lot of random beauty products there at discounted prices. It’s a little gray-market, but a good way to try new things. I’ve seen several items by this Lanoliné brand, which you can also find on Amazon. Their Manuka Honey Firming Serum is quite nice, and I’ve used and liked their Manuka Honey Eye Creme as well.

Lanoliné is a brand owned by New Zealand company Pearson & Craig, which uses a lot of native botanical ingredients. It’s unclear from their website what their stance is on environmentally friendly practices/animal testing. The serum has a consistency similar to hair gel and has no scent to speak of. It goes on fairly smoothly, but leaves my skin feeling slightly tacky. It’s infused with collagen, Vitamins C and E and botanical extracts, as well as honey (duh). The list price is $19 (which seems to be the price for all of Lanoliné’s products, weirdly), but I paid $9.99 for it at Marshalls. My skin doesn’t necessarily seem any firmer after using it, but it’s still a reasonably good serum.

Lumene Finland Time Freeze Instant Lift Serum

lumene-time-freeze-instant-lift-serumI reviewed this product a few weeks ago as part of a Beauty Grab-Bag post, but I figured I would include here again because it is a serum. Lumene is committed to sustainable practices and doesn’t test on animals. Lumene’s main claim to fame is that they use natural Arctic ingredients in their products. This one is touted as an “instant lift,” a claim I don’t put a lot of stock in.

That said, this is a pleasant product to use. It has a nice, light fragrance that is vaguely floral. Unlike the other serums listed here, it’s neither very thin nor very viscous—it’s basically the consistency of a daily moisturizer. It’s also not clear, unlike the other serums. It has a tan color to it, but as far as I could tell, that didn’t make a difference in how it appeared on my skin. It’s $22.99 for 1 oz. at Ulta.

Trader Joe’s Nourish Antioxidant Facial Serum

TJ's serumFinally, there’s my old friend, Trader Joe’s. Their skin care section is small, but they have some surprisingly good stuff, none of which is tested on animals. Their serum is highly similar to Lanoliné’s, but (spoiler alert) I actually prefer TJ’s.

The serum has a light, citrusy scent and a reasonably viscous consistency. It contains antioxidant Resveratrol and encapsulated Vitamin C beads, along with Vitamins A and E, and several botanical extracts. It glides easily onto bare skin and creates a smooth surface for moisturizer and foundation. Using it reminds me of applying gesso to a canvas before painting. It makes a good makeup primer in addition to the burst of vitamins for your skin. Best of all, it’s $9.99 for 1 oz. (Note, this product is sold on Amazon, but at a significant mark-up (double, from what I saw).

I didn’t dislike any of the serums I’ve tried, but I do have favorites. In order of preference, based on effectiveness and price, I rank them (1) Trader Joe’s, (2) Lanoliné, (3) Lumene, and (4) Chanel. Let me know if you have a favorite serum!