By Julie K.L. Dam
October 04, 1999 12:00 PM

Some people think that vinotherapy means sitting in a barrel slurping wine through a straw,” says Mathilde Thomas with a laugh. In fact, that’s about the only thing it doesn’t mean. At the French skin-care guru’s new $10 million spa, Les Sources de Caudalie, guests may luxuriate in crushed-cabernet body scrubs, grape-seed-based skin creams and hot tubs swirling with grape-seed extract and essential oils. The ingredients may be ordinaire, but according to Thomas the effect is not. “The antioxidants in the extract are 10,000 times more effective than vitamin E in stopping free radicals,” she asserts. “They build up collagen and make your skin look younger.”

Thomas, 27, opened Les Sources de Caudalie last month on her family’s lush vineyard in Martillac, 10 miles south of the wine-worshipping city of Bordeaux, France. Now fans of her Caudalie line of skin-care products—like Catherine Deneuve, Madonna, designer Donatella Versace and Princess Caroline of Monaco—can book themselves restorative sessions of la vie en rosé. Actress Isabelle Adjani, who recently spent a week being pampered at the spa, calls Caudalie’s Eau de Beauté grape-seed extract spray-on lotion “my holy water.”

Attached to a four-star hotel and a pair of gourmet restaurants, the spa offers facials and massages using the Caudalie grape-seed oil creams (available at U.S. stores such as Sephora and Barneys for $15 to $45 each), plus such treatments as wine-and-honey wraps to improve circulation. A one-week stay at the spa costs $3,000.

The seed of Thomas’s idea was planted several years ago, when scientists studying the so-called French paradox—how the Gauls can enjoy both a high-cholesterol diet and low levels of heart disease—discovered that red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols that help keep the ticker young. Scientists like University of Bordeaux professor Joseph Vercauteren subsequently found that grape seeds, normally discarded during wine production, contain powerful antioxidants that protect tissues—including the skin.

Thomas learned of Vercauteren’s research in 1993. The older daughter of French supermarket mogul Daniel Cathiard, 55, and his wife, Florence, 53, an advertising executive (sister Alice, 22, is a student), Mathilde had been preparing for business school when her parents purchased the venerable Smith Haut Lafitte winery in Bordeaux in 1990. With a modest investment from her father—plus grape seeds left from crushings at the winery—Mathilde founded Caudalie in Paris in 1994. Her partner in the venture (and since 1996 in marriage) is business-school grad Bertrand Thomas, now 29. Licensing Vercauteren’s patented method to stabilize polyphenols in creams, the couple sold their first face lotions to pharmacies door-to-door. Caudalie revenues reached $3 million last year.

“The treatments don’t exist anywhere else, and they’re absolutely divine,” says Mathilde, who lives with her husband in a Paris loft. She would know: “I am the first guinea pig, always.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Cathy Nolan in Martillac