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Is This Mega Hyped-Up $185 Face Serum Worth It?

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A skeptic and a believer try Vintner’s Daughter.

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I get into fights with my boss, Britt, all the time. Okay, maybe not fights per se, but friendly arguments about whether or not certain beauty products are good. Having done a brief stint as a beauty editor, she basically likes to ask my opinion about things and then disagree with me.

Vintner’s Daughter’s Active Botanical Serum ($185) is the latest product up for debate. It’s made of 22 plant-derived oils and extracts, is sold on Goop and Net-a-Porter, and boasts a ludicrously high price tag. When Britt asked me about it a few months ago, I said, “Eh, it’s just another overpriced fancy oil,” though I had admittedly never tried it. She’d seen it on photographer Jamie Beck’s Instagram and subsequently noticed it everywhere.

Britt and I both have, I think, a healthy sense of self-awareness about what our particular biases are. If she reads multiple gushy reviews of a product or sees various glowing faces attributed to a specific formula — particularly if it’s people she really respects or thinks are aspirational in some way — she wants to try it. I am inclined in the other direction. If a bunch of cool people are raving about it, I don’t want to use it. I also become a human eye-roll emoji when I hear things like “natural” and “Gwyneth Paltrow loves it!” and — I realize this is unfair — automatically have lower expectations.

"The cult of Vintner's Daughter" in the @wsjmag today. Link in profile. #gratitude

A post shared by Vintner's Daughter (@vintnersdaughter) on

The Active Botanical Serum (ABS) fits into all of these categories, so I was pretty prepared to write it off. Then I started reading reviews, and they had a different tone than the usual run-of-the-mill positive reviews — they sounded almost evangelistic. So we hopped on the phone with founder April Gargiulo, who also graciously sent us two bottles to sample. Thus began our indoctrination.

Gargiulo lives in Napa, and yes, is the daughter of winemakers. Yes, there is grape seed oil in ABS. But that’s where the wine origin story ends. Vintner’s Daughter began the way a lot of natural beauty companies do: A pregnant Gargiulo started reading the labels on her beauty products and discovered that too many of the ingredients in her $200 face cream were fillers rather than active ingredients. She also got freaked out by what she perceived to be “toxic” ingredients, but couldn’t find naturals on the market at the time that were effective for her particular skin issues. “I needed a lot more cream in my coffee!” she says. So she decided to make her own.

Gargiulo took two and a half years to work out the formulation and ingredient ratios, then launched Vintner’s Daughter three years ago. It contains ingredients like frankincense, marigold, rosehip, rosemary, and turmeric root oil. Cap Beauty in New York City, known for its natural beauty assortment, was the first store to carry it. Word-of-mouth started driving sales, then a feature on Into the Gloss two years ago sent it into the stratosphere.

ABS is still the brand’s only product, which is really unusual for a beauty company. “It’s the one foundational product that I think every woman should have in her skincare routine,” says Gargiulo. “We will eventually make other products, but if they are not category-defining, then we will not be introducing them. It’s not about filling up a shelf so that I can sell in a store like Neiman Marcus or wherever.”

Gargiulo recommends a simple routine: cleanse, tone, ABS. My routine often includes seven products or more and not only because I have to test products for my job, so this already raised red flags for me. Her toner of choice? None other than the stinky, very-hyped Biologique Recherche P50, another favorite of Britt’s that we have “fought” about. (The P50-plus-Vintner’s Daughter combination is a popular one among users on the internet.)

I agreed to strip down my routine and try this for two weeks, even agreeing to use the new P50 PIGM, a gentler Biologique formula. Britt did the same but with her beloved P50 1970. And of course we both used the Active Botanical Serum twice a day, using Gargiulo’s “push and press” application method, which involves putting four to six drops into your palm, rubbing them together, then pushing it into your face, neck, and décolletage.

The serum is a yellow-colored thick oil with a strong floral scent courtesy of various plant and flower essences. It put me off at first, but it dissipates pretty quickly on your skin. My skin sucked it up and I started using more than the recommended amount at night. I would be shiny for 20 minutes or so, then it would absorb or evaporate or do whatever skin potions do.

Two weeks later, Britt was gushing and I was sheepishly admitting I was going to buy another bottle of Vintner’s Daughter when this one was gone. (I had accidentally spilled a quarter of it down my sink and was pretty sad about this, a sure sign I had bonded with the product.) My face had less breakouts and was glowier. I did continue to use my prescription retinoid three times a week during this test period. It still makes my face flake even after years of use, but while I was using ABS, it didn’t flake at all. After the two weeks was up, I went back to testing other products, some of which left my skin a mess — one night of ABS would clear it up. I went on a weekend beach trip, during which I drank and applied thick sunscreen liberally, resulting in a constellation of bumps on my cheeks. It cleared up within two days of ABS use. I’m sold. I don’t know why it works but it does for me.

I’ll let Britt tell you her results herself:

“I am glowing like there is a candle lit beneath my epidermis and over the past month at least seven people have guessed that I am nearly 10 years younger than I actually am. My face is puffed up in the morning, in a good way, and my skin is so soft and clear that I stopped wearing sunscreen because I couldn’t bear to cover it up. Oops. Also, the truest test: My skin no longer reveals a hangover. I look just as fresh-faced the morning after a few glasses of wine as I do the morning after a long run.”

So, is Vintner’s Daughter worth $185? This is an impossible question to answer because everyone puts a different emphasis on worth. If you’re the type that already spends a few hundred dollars on skincare, then it may be worth it, if you can actually strip down your routine and just use a tone and the serum. I’m going to buy it again. Britt already has. We actually agree on something for a change.