Why Amar’e Stoudemire and a Bunch of Other Rich People Are Bathing in Red Wine

A couple taking a wine spa bath in the wine spa center (a vinotherapy resort) at the Golden Beach (Zolotoi Plyazh) recreation center.
A couple taking a wine spa bath in the wine spa center (a vinotherapy resort) at the Golden Beach (Zolotoi Plyazh) recreation center. Photo: Matytsin Valery/TAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Like millions of Americans, New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire enjoys a few glasses of wine each week. But Stoudemire isn’t drinking those merlots and cabernets — he is bathing in them. Last Wednesday, he posted a photo on his Instagram account in which he was covered up to his neck in what appeared to be red wine. The Insta’s caption read, in part, “Recovery Day! Red Wine Bath !!”

Speaking with reporters last Thursday, Stoudemire revealed he has been practicing vinotherapy, a process involving immersion in wine-grape branches, vines, leaves, and skin (basically everything that doesn’t make it into the bottle), on his off days for the past eight months or so. His 40-minute baths — a mixture of red wine and water — are “a rejuvenation … [allowing him] create more circulation in [his] red blood cells,” according to the Daily News. While vinotherapy may seem like a mom-joke — “Oh goodness, I spilled my glass of wine in my bubble bath, but I feel more relaxed than before” — the treatment’s history stretches back to the early 1990s and there is scientific evidence — well, sort of — that wine might do more for your health than simply by enjoying a glass with dinner.

Here’s a brief explanation of why some people are taking long, relaxing baths in vats of red wine :

When and where did vinotherapy start?

In 1993, Mathilde Thomas was giving a tour of her parents’ winery in Bordeaux when one of the guests asked what became of the red grape branches, vines, and seeds. That guest was a professor from a French university, and he claimed to Thomas, who was then finishing business school with plans to work for a plant and oil extraction company, that the oils from those red wine grape seeds were ten times more effective at preventing wrinkles than vitamin E. 

That chance encounter led Thomas to found Caudalie, a French skin-care company. Because Caudalie was the first to realize the potential health benefits of red wine and patent products related to vinotherapie, it’s the field’s leader (a brief aside: The company has trademarked vinotherapie, which includes their products and methodology, while the broader practice is known as vinotherapy).

By 1999, Caudalie would release several moisturizers, all containing grapeseed extract, and open their first vinotherapie spa, a 30-room hotel overlooking that Bordeaux winery (the company now operates seven other spas worldwide, including one at NYC’s Plaza Hotel).

How does vinotherapy work?

The goal of vinotherapy is to treat clients with products rich in the red wine grapes’ polyphenols, which are compounds found in grape seeds, branches, vines, and the marc (what remains after pressing the grapes) that are often leached out and discarded in manufacturing process. 

Polyphenols help protect the grape from the elements, and, according to Caudalie, when applied to a person’s skin, help mask free radicals, which the company claims is the source of four out of five facial lines. The most powerful of the polyphenols, say vinotherapy proponents, is resveratrol, a compound they say contains anti-aging properties and enhances blood circulation. Vinotherapie treatments include body wraps, scrubs, massages with the grape skin (which slough off dead cells), and those barrel baths, in which clients soak in a combination of water and red vine leaf stock.

Simply drinking copious amounts of red wine doesn’t raise a person’s resveratrol levels enough, say vinotherapy advocates, though some Caudalie clients joke they enjoy the barrel baths specifically so they can drink more wine afterwards.

How did this practice get so popular?
The French Paradox.

The French Paradox?

Around the same time vinotherapy was growing roots, the scientific community became obsessed with discovering how the French could eat a rich, high-fat diet, do less cardio than the rest of the world, and yet still live longer. Some people thought this was attributable to the amount of red wine the French drink, possibly on account of resveratrol boosting the cardiovascular system. It’s since been shown a person would have to drink 52 bottles per day to accumulate enough resveratrol in the bloodstream to garner these benefits, meaning whatever benefits the French are enjoying can’t be reduced to their wine consumption, but coverage of the French paradox as both a health and a diet aid helped boost vinotherapy nonetheless.

Is there any actual science to support vinotherapy?

Vinotherapy enthusiasts claim the treatment not only helps curtail aging, but also has anti-cancer benefits. In 1993, Dr. Edwin Frankel of UC Davis released a study claiming polyphenols contain powerful antioxidant properties (owing to his research in the field, Frankel was one of the decade’s most cited scientists).

Richard Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School has also published several studies on the health benefits. In 2006, a Sinclair-led study published in Nature claimed resveratrol offsets the negative effects of a high-calorie diet in mice while also prolonging the animal’s lifespan. Sinclair released another report several years later claiming a group of human genes, known as SIRT1 (or silent information regulator), became activated in the presence of resveratrol. This 2013 study centered on resveratrol’s effect on mice, and the animal showed signs of improved endurance while negating the effects of obesity and aging. Studies have also reported resveratrol helps prevent skin cancer in mice as well as protecting them from cardiovascular diseases (like heart disease).

It sounds like resveratrol is good … for mice. But do these benefits extend to humans?
Right, that’s sort of the problem. A study published just this past year in JAMA Internal Medicine seems to debunk some of Sinclair’s decade-long claims. Examining the effects of resveratrol on inhabitants of two villages in Italy, scientists from Johns Hopkins could find no link between levels of the compound and the villagers’ health. According to the study’s lead author, “Since limited animal and cell studies suggested that resveratrol might have beneficial effects, I think people were quick to extrapolate to humans. In retrospect, this was really oversimplified.”

Sinclair, who was recently named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, was reportedly not surprised by the findings, and it’s worth pointing out that around the time he began publishing papers on resveratrol’s effects, he co-founded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a company that sought to commercialize the compound in pill form. GlaxoSmithKline bought out the company in 2008 for $720 million, and while Sirtris was shuttered just four years later, there is clearly financial potential in resveratrol supplements — Semba’s study reported Americans spend $30 million a year on these supplements.

Even if resveratrol is beneficial, how does the body benefit during these barrel baths?
Thomas, the Caudalie founder, says the combination of the tannins and resveratrol found in the red vine leaf extract improves the body’s circulation by strengthening blood vessels, but she admits her company has not done clinical tests on how the resveratrol actually enters the bloodstream. “I don’t know how it works specifically,” she says, “but when you sit in a tub for 20 minutes, your body is naturally going to absorb ingredients.”

Dr. Richard Semba of Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, who led the study released earlier this year, was skeptical. “I don’t know much about the cutaneous absorption of resveratrol,” he says when reached by phone. “I’d imagine it is not very possible, and it sounds like a crazy idea.” During the course of his study in Italy, the red wine the villagers consumed was either a few glasses each evening, or used in their cooking, but Semba says that as far as he knows, “neither red wine nor any of its byproducts were used on [their] skin.”

Who else uses vinotherapy?

Vinotherapy is typically a province of models and celebrities, but Stoudemire isn’t the only athlete to enjoy vinotherapy-style pampering. Patrice Evra, who is one of the France’s top soccer players, goes to the Plaza frequently for grape seed oil massages, and San Antonio Spurs future Hall of Fame guard Tony Parker, who is of French extract, has trekked to Bordeaux for everything from anti-aging to circulation treatments (“and for the good wine too,” says Thomas). 

According to vinotherapy enthusiasts, the barrel baths only work when the red vine leaf is extracted into a stock and then combined with water, not by merely pouring red wine into water — the process by which Stoudemire enjoys his soaks.

Wait, so Amar’e is doing it wrong?

“Alcohol is not good for the skin,” says Thomas. “It’ll only dry the skin out.” Also, Stoudemire’s bathing location — an antique tub — doesn’t maximize vinotherapy’s alleged full benefits. “To help with blood circulation, you need very fine mini-jets, like a jacuzzi, to work with the muscles and improve blood circulation,” claims Thomas.

However, since Stoudemire has been beset by injuries since signing with the Knicks in 2010 — various health issues cost the forward roughly 50 percent of the past three seasons — perhaps vinotherapy, and the confidence that comes with using a unfamiliar treatment that he feels helps to rejuvenate his legs (as he told reporters), will be enough to keep Stoudemire on the court this season. Even if vinotherapy doesn’t have a sturdy scientific basis, after all, scientists know that the placebo effect can work wonders.