By Richard A. Baxter, MD

Picture sitting in a tub made from a barrique, soaking in wine essence-infused water, overlooking the vineyards. This utopia exists. Les Sources de Caudalie is possibly the first vinothérapy spa, and it has sired Caudalie, a fast-growing international skin care brand, with boutique spa locations around the world. The ingredients are derived from the vineyards of Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, in the Pessac-Léognan in the commune of Martillac in Bordeaux.

The 800-year-old Smith Haut-Lafitte property was purchased in 1990 by Daniel and Florence Cathiard, former Olympic skiers and owners of a successful sporting goods company. They set about rehabilitating the property and founded Caudalie a few years later. With Caudalie’s success and the recent Robert Parker score of 100 points for the 2009 Château Smith Haut-Lafitte (SHL) red wine, the Cathiards are on a roll.

Despite its long history, the property had developed the nickname “sleeping beauty.” It was not known for producing quality wine despite its grand cru designation. The Cathiards went all out to improve the quality of the wines, including switching from mechanical to manual harvesting, using organic fertilizers, hand sorting of the grapes supplemented with high-tech optics, de-stemming by vibration, adding a new barrel room for aging, and founding their own cooperage on-site.

With the 2009 harvest, they were in the forefront again thanks to a new technology called Oenoview satellite imaging, which helps determine the optimal harvest time. This willingness to embrace emerging science and respectfully reinterpret tradition characterizes the skin care line as well as the wines.

Dating to the time of the crusades, the property was acquired in 1720 by Scottish navigator George Smith, who appended his name and built the Château. The site lies on a gravelly plateau, the highest part of a parcel originally named Lafitte. The Grand vin typically contains 55% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 1% of Petit Verdot, though the ’09 upped the cab sauv to 65%. The second wine, Les Hauts de Smith, has a smaller production and is made in red, white, and rosé versions.

Pure happenstance led to the birth of the Caudalie skin care line. Joseph Vercauteren, PhD, a professor of pharmacy at the Université de Montpellier, had been working with the wine-derived antioxidant resveratrol, at the time an obscure molecule. (PubMed now lists nearly 8,000 articles on resveratrol.) He was interested in extracting resveratrol from the old vines that were being removed for replanting, but they soon thought to use it for skin care and vinothérapy.

With the Cathiards’ daughter Mathilde Thomas in charge of the project, and scientific validation of resveratrol as a cosmeceutical, Caudalie has taken off.

As Good As It Gets

For a wine and health wonk like me, a weekend in Paris at The Caudalie headquarters is as good as it gets. I had been invited to participate in a media event highlighting recent scientific advances on resveratrol, along with Harvard molecular biologist David Sinclair, PhD (who discovered how resveratrol activates anti-aging genes) and Vercauteren.

Caudalie’s operation is impressive, housed in a restored 19th-century building in the 8th arrondissement. The staff speaks more than a dozen languages, processing online sales and responding to inquiries from around the world. Later, at one of Mathilde’s favorite bistros, she reacquainted me with the SHL. I had tried it on a visit to Bordeaux a few years earlier, when the wine was clearly showing the results of the winery’s restoration but was lesser known. It was even better this time. Tasted again recently, it showed intense color and aromatics, with dark fruit, cocoa, and a subtle earthiness.

The term “Caudalie” refers to the finish of a wine, how long it lingers on the tongue. Caudalie is measured in seconds, with typical wines coming in at 4 or 5, extraordinary ones 8 seconds or more. The 2009 SHL clocked in at more than 12.

Using resveratrol in skin care provides a great finish to the SHL renaissance story: In wine it comes from the skins of the grapes, where its antioxidant and other properties protect the fruit from environmental stress.

Bordeaux’s sleeping beauty has awakened, and now we know the secret to her beauty: drink great wine, and maybe soak in a bit of it, too.

Baxter 0172finalRichard A. Baxter, MD, is a plastic surgeon in Seattle. He is the author of Age Gets Better with Wine. Dr Baxter can be reached via [email protected].com.