(Cult Status)

How A $195 Serum Built A Legion Of Loyal Celebrity Fans

It all started on a vineyard in Napa.

Originally Published: 
TZR/Vintner's Daughter
vintner's daughter active botanical serum
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Cult Status is our series that highlights an iconic item from brands both established and buzz-worthy. In these features, you'll discover the fascinating history of how one extra-special piece exceeded expectations and became a forever product. This time, the focus is on Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum.

It’s been just over a decade since Vintner's Daughter launched its cult-favorite Botanical Serum in 2013. And in today's world, where skin care brands flop almost as quickly as they launch, that alone is cause for celebration. But there’s so much more to the story. Over the years, the $195 serum, which has roots in founder April Gargiulo’s family vineyard in Napa, has gained quite the reputation as a celebrity-loved luxury product. It’s also notably beloved by clean beauty enthusiasts as it’s green certified at the highest level, carbon neutral, and B Corp certified (the most stringent sustainability governing body in the world).

The cornerstone event that catapulted the brand to cult status was when Into the Gloss, a leading digital beauty publication of the early 2010s, published a 2015 article entitled ​​“The Face Oil To End All Face Oils.” One day, out of the blue, Gargiulo got an email from an intern saying “Hey, I'm doing a story on wine-related skin care and would love to talk to you.” During the conversation, the entrepreneur went on to make the important distinction that the Botanical Serum is not actually made with wine, it’s just made with the same principles in mind.

The Active Botanical Serum’s Rise To Fame

Pregnant with her second child in 2015, Gargiulo was still packing every box and answering every email herself. “At this point I was maybe getting, let's say, like 30-50 orders a day,” she tells TZR. “And I woke up [the day the article was published], it's like 7 a.m., and I have 200 orders.”

From there, the brand’s popularity snowballed. Kendall Jenner and Hailey Bieber’s makeup artist, Mary Phillips, got her hands on the serum, then actor Tracee Ellis Ross. “And then Gwyneth Paltrow somehow found us and brought us onto Goop,” Gargiulo adds. The brand subsequently was featured in US Weekly and People, and it was even sandwiched between the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie breakup on the E! News homepage, which drove so much traffic to the Vintner’s Daughter’s website that it (the site) actually broke.

The Concept Of The Serum

It was the perfect storm of circumstances, but in truth, it took awhile for the brand to gain traction. Generally speaking, the beauty industry didn’t understand Gargiulo’s initial vision, which was years in the making. For starters, she launched the line with one lone product, which wasn’t the norm at the time. Before the ITG article, very few retailers even wanted to meet with her because they didn't know how to talk about the serum, let alone merchandise it. “I was told over and over again by industry vets ‘we love this product, but I can't put a single product on the shelf’,” Gargiulo shares.

The Active Botanical Serum launched when Korean skin care was surging in popularity. “Everyone thought you needed 15 steps and I said, ‘give me one serum that actually works’,” she says. Gargiulo always knew she wanted to start with an oil-based product despite this type of formulation being taboo at the time — especially for those with acne-prone skin like her. But she didn’t want one that just kind of sat on top of your face like so many finishing oils do. “My hypothesis was, how do I use an oil almost like a trojan horse? How do I fill it with as many nutrients as possible so that it absorbs faster?” Gargiulo shares.

The idea of a nutrient-packed, performance-driven oil first came to her 20-some years ago during a serendipitous trip to a Marrakesh apothecary. “I grew up in this era where you used everything to dry out acne — you would never put oil on it,” Gargiulo says. During her travels, she found this hole- in-the-wall shop with dirt floors and handmade-like shelves that looked like it had been there for hundreds of years. “I go in there and I'm pointing to whatever acne I had on my face and this woman, who didn’t speak English, kept giving me this bottle of oil.” Reluctantly, Gargiulo used it. “I woke up the next morning and it was like angels were singing; I was like, ‘Oh my God, my skin’s never felt this good’,” she shares. And so began her love affair with oils.

Creating The Active Botanical Serum

Being the daughter of a vintner (her family owns Gargiulo Vineyards in Napa), Gargiulo is deeply appreciative of the slow and intentional process that goes into making a quality finished product. What repelled her the most about the skin care world were the processed, synthetic, powdered, filler ingredients commonly found in many big name brands. “So much of what Vintner's Daughter is built on philosophically comes from the world of wine in that we would never cut corners,” she explains. The Active Botanical Serum is packed with 22 of the world’s most active botanicals (from hazelnut to carrot to evening primrose) and uses the signature Phyto Radiance Infusion, a trademarked 21-day process which begins with whole plants and, over the course of three weeks, gently infuses nutrients from them into a completed formula.

One of her biggest hurdles early on was finding a lab that would give her the time of day. “I would go in and I'd say here's my process and they'd be like, ‘Oh aren't you cute, we don't spend over three hours making anything and you want us to spend three weeks?’” Gargiulo shares. But coming from the wine world, it wasn’t abnormal to spend three years on a product. Luckily she found a lab partner that believed in the process.

Every other detail, down to its signature violet glass bottle, is equally well thought-out. “I saw oil being packaged in clear bottles all the time,” she says, noting that choice is often marketing-driven because you want to see the product. “But whatever's in those clear bottles degrades almost immediately [due to light exposure].” The kind of violet glass Vintner’s Daughter sourced was developed in Germany in the early 1900s. “The only light that it lets in is a light that actually amplifies the energetic value of whatever's inside,” Gargiulo adds.

The Serum’s Next Era

Fast forward to 2024 and the brand is going strong thanks to Gargiulo’s insistence on quality. Unlike most skin care lines that debut new launches every quarter, Vintner’s Daughter counts just three products (a fermented prebiotic stem cell essence and an antioxidant-rich balancing cleanser have since been added) in the line. They can be found at major retailers like Nordstrom, Violet Grey, Revolve, and more. “I don't have investors, so I don’t have the pressure to pump out new products,” she notes.

For the 10th anniversary in the fall of 2023, the brand debuted a custom facial (the brand’s first) at Stanly Ranch, Auberge Resorts Collection, the newest 5-star resort in Napa. Naturally, the lavish $495 treatment utilizes the line’s three products and features 90 minutes of various modalities, including hand massage, microcurrent, red light therapy, and cryotherapy. “There’s a big skin flooding moment where we're going to use more product than you would ever consider using,” describes Gargiulo.

Also to mark the occasion, the brand also launched an extra-large, limited-edition gilded bottle designed by MarSha Yi Robinson. “She's this extraordinary artist who uses botanicals as a source of inspiration and believes, as we do, that a connection to nature is like a connection to self,” Gargiulo explains.

As for the future of Vintner’s Daughter? “I would love one day to have a physical expression of our brand in the world one day.” One thing is clear: Gargiulo is on a mission to build a heritage, legacy brand. “10 years down, 100 more to go,” she says with a smile.

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