Vintner’s Daughter and the triumph of slow beauty
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Napa Valley is in the midst of a heatwave when I arrive to interview skincare and winemaking maven April Gargiulo. Her plant-based beauty line Vintner’s Daughter has cult status among ingredient-passionate buyers, who wait years for new launches while Gargiulo meticulously formulates each one. Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan, as are actresses Tracee Ellis Ross and Naomi Watts, who swears by the Active Botanical Serum (£185 for 30ml) “to feel glow-y”. 2023 has marked Vintner’s Daughter’s 10th year and the launch of only its third product; the goal is to maintain a 30-35 per cent annual growth rate.
Still, I traverse the Golden Gate Bridge for the drive to the famous wine region with a dash of scepticism: why would Gargiulo’s latest product, the Active Renewal Cleanser (£95 for 115ml), require four years of development?
Gargiulo and I meet at her namesake vineyards, a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon estate in Oakville that she co-owns. Founded by her parents, the winery has two mile-apart properties, 575 OVX and Money Road Ranch, occupying some of the planet’s most coveted winemaking real estate. We’re on the former – 18 acres of pristine grapevines before us, the slightest lavender scent wafting overhead. It feels like a different climate from the rest of the valley’s heatwave. “This breeze that we’re feeling,” says Gargiulo. “We’re looking at this gorgeous topography, but it’s really about how the soil and daily temperature shifts relate to the grapes for ideal growing conditions.
Today Gargiulo lives 44 miles away in San Francisco, but keeps a weekend house nearby. Every element of the business comes back to her Napa upbringing. “True luxury is about never taking shortcuts,” she says. “I was lucky to grow up surrounded by an extreme focus on quality and craftsmanship, which comes to life in this beautiful, tangible way with a bottle of wine.”
Pre-Vintner’s Daughter, Gargiulo battled cystic acne and pigmentation issues, trying “so-called luxury” products with “exorbitant price tags” to find the right elixir. It wasn’t until she became pregnant with her first daughter that she started to scrutinise them. “There was maybe 0.01 per cent active ingredients. The rest was really cheap, low-quality filler,” Gargiulo recalls. “To make the finest wine in the world, you would not use cherry flavour number 10 and oak flavour number two.” She gestures at the terroir: “My hypothesis was to create a luxury skincare company built on the same philosophical foundations as this world.” First came the serum in 2013, followed by the hydrating Active Treatment Essence (£210 for 50ml) in 2019. They share 60 cosmetic industry awards between them, with 85 per cent of customers signed up to restock products around every eight weeks.
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Gargiulo’s maxim is that Vintner’s Daughter moves at the speed of quality. The beauty industry, however, operates on a more profit-driven R&D scale. “I knew that I needed to begin with nutrient-rich, whole plants, and I didn’t want to use extracts, powders or synthetics,” says Gargiulo. “‘You can’t do it,’ the labs told me. ‘It’s going to take weeks.’ I’m saying, ‘Weeks, who cares?’ I come from winemaking, where it takes three years to make a bottle. You know, most skincare is made in about three to four hours.”
Goop executive beauty director Jean Godfrey-June likens the process to artisans in a Hermès workshop: “If any big guys in the beauty industry bought this company they would put a stop to spending all the money, time and craftsmanship that it takes for her to make a single bottle,” she tells me. “The cleanser is genius – mild but exfoliating.”
Botanicals have been used in skincare for centuries, but new research has prompted a resurgence in plant-based brands. Last year the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that plants are a rich source of active ingredients for promoting skin health and anti-ageing, but efficacy depends on how the materials were harvested, dried and stored. Studies show that certain plants, such as those used by Vintner’s Daughter, can prevent oxidative stress from free radicals, a state that leads to dark spots and can create fine lines.
The cleanser combines an oil and a water-soluble Phyto Radiance Infusion, the brand’s signature base, distilled from whole plants over a period of 21 days. The oil binds with make-up, sunscreen and natural residues, while the water-soluble element emulsifies to cleanse the skin in a single step (no make-up remover necessary). Once again, age-old botanicals – frankincense, butcher’s broom, and cypress – are used to brighten. The cleanser sold out within six weeks of its launch.
Meanwhile, we take a seat in the garden of Gargiulo’s Napa farmhouse, built from salvaged old-growth redwood siding, glass and rusted metal roofing. In true Gargiulo style, the project took five years to complete: no cutting corners and no shortcuts. Outside she’s planted Queen Anne’s lace, manzanita trees and a fruit orchard bearing apples, peaches, pomegranates, plums and finger limes. “I find nature to be the source of connection or spiritual practice,” confides Gargiulo, who has no plans to launch another product in a hurry. It will come – eventually (Gargiulo hints at body care). Suffice it to say, she’ll take as long as she needs to to get it right.