A tiny seed has grown into one of the cosmetic industry’s latest success stories. When Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas gave a wine tasting to a pharmaceutical professor, a new idea was born – wine-based skincare
“My husband, Bertrand, and I were students, and to make some extra money, we were helping with tastings and tours at my parents’ vineyard in Bordeaux at the weekends,” says Mathilde. “One lucky day in 1993, Professor Joseph Vercauteren came for a tasting. On the vineyard tour, he stopped in front of the big vat full of grapeseeds that we bin at the end of the harvest. He told us that we were throwing away the best antioxidants produced by nature.”
The science bit
In his work on the pharmacy faculty at Bordeaux University of Pharmacy, Professor Vercauteren had been experimenting with polyphenols, a natural chemical found in some plants. The polyphenols in grapeseeds contain an unusually high amount of an antioxidant useful for skin repair.
“People had tried to use the grapeseed polyphenols in cosmetics in the past, but they are very unstable, and the creams turned red and vinegary,” explains Mathilde. Professor Vercauteren was patenting a way of stabilising them by adding a fatty acid.
Down to business
When the professor told Mathilde and Bertrand of his discovery, they knew they had to act fast. “We convinced him not to sell the patent to a big cosmetics group by explaining that we wanted to create an entire company based around grape and vine, rather than just developing one or two faddish products,” says Mathilde. The professor agreed, and they still work with him today, developing and patenting new ingredients.
“To find out if the professor’s theories worked, we put his molecule in a cream and asked an independent laboratory to perform clinical tests. The results were amazing,” says Mathilde. “The cream was reducing free radicals (skin-damaging molecules) by 85 per cent. A huge international cosmetics company was advertising an expensive cream for its ability to fight free radicals, but it was reducing them by just 11 per cent.”
Laying the groundwork
When the results of the tests came back, Mathilde and Bertrand set the wheels in motion to get their new company, Caudalie, off the ground. “We still had one year to go as business students at the University of Paris, but in the final year, we did all of our projects about Caudalie,” says Mathilde.
In 1995, Caudalie’s first three products were ready to sell: Caudalie Premieres Vendanges, Caudalie Vinosourceand Vinocaps nutritional supplements. “We took my husband’s motorbike, put the products in our backpack and knocked on the door of the big pharmacies in Bordeaux and Paris,” explains Mathilde. “Some of them laughed, saying, ‘I don’t care about the grapeseeds. Sell me the vine instead!’ But some of them were interested and took the products.”
Wine into water
The products sold well, and by 1997, Caudalie was making a profit. While developing new grapevine-based patents and adding more products to the line, Mathilde and Bertrand were also working on a new project – a stunning spa set in the grounds of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Mathilde’s parents’ vineyard. All the treatments would be based on Vinotherapie, Caudalie’s trademarked term, meaning wine-based skincare.
The spa was an immediate success, receiving press coverage around the world and generating rapid growth for the company. “Managing the explosion in growth was tough. We had our first child at the same time, so it was a lot of work, and we made the mistake of saying yes to everything,” says Mathilde.
Other countries were knocking on their door, asking for the skincare range and spas. That meant spending vast amounts of time on the plane for the young family. Not only was this exhausting, but finding and training quality staff in such a short time proved difficult. Mathilde and Bertrand have now overcome this problem by devising a more focused export strategy and getting talented people on board to help with the growth.
Growth does seem assured for the company. From its not-so-humble beginnings on one of Bordeaux’s premier vineyards to its current place at beauty counters around the world, Caudalie is definitely a brand on the rise. Today it has an annual turnover of 40 million euros and is the third best-selling brand of anti-aging skincare in France, with an impressive eight per cent of the market share.
With high-quality products featuring truly unique ingredients, stringent ethical policies in line with today’s green thinking (no animal testing, ingredients mostly organic and fairly traded) and a family-run management team with their feet firmly on the ground, 2007 is certain to be a vintage year for Caudalie.
Caudalie skincare range is available online, at numerous UK retailers, including Selfridges, John Lewis and Space NK, and at pharmacies throughout France. Spa de Vinotherapie aux Sources de Caudalie, Chemin de Smith Haut Lafitte, 33650 Martillac, France, www.caudalie.com
Mathilde tells us about her favourite ways to spend a day in Bordeaux
1 “Get pampered at Caudalie’s Vinotherapie spa. Just 15 minutes from Bordeaux city, it’s set in a gorgeous vineyard in the countryside. Having Caudalie beauty treatments, relaxing in the spa, eating gourmet food at the restaurants and strolling through the hotel grounds makes for a truly beautiful experience.”
2 “Rent a pinasse (flat-bottomed boat) at Bassin d’Archachon and have a private picnic at La Banc d’Arguin, a sandbank island in the basin.”
3 “Run to the top of the the Dune du Pyla, the biggest sand dune in Europe. The view from there is magnificent.”
4 “Take a water taxi up the Garonne River from Bordeaux to La Maison du Fleuve restaurant in Camblanes et Meynac. It sits over the river on pilings and offers 180 degree views of river, whether you’re seated near the fireplace in winter or on the terrace in summer.”
5 “Kayak down the La Leyre river, which is in a pretty forest, from Salles to the Parc Ornithologique. You’ll pass elegant bridges and chateaux, finishing at the bird sanctuary, where you’ll see magnificent wildlife.”
6 “Stroll through the picturesque flea market around St Michel church in Bordeaux on Sunday mornings, or buy delicious organic fruit and vegetables at the market in Leognan, the village next to our chateau.”
7 “Visit the Unesco World Heritage town of St Emilion, then visit Barde Haut chateau for a wine tasting. It offers stunning views of the town.”
8 “Visit stunning CAPC modern Art Muséum in Bordeaux.”