By Julia Flynn Siler
The Widow Clicquot
By Tilar J. Mazzeo
(Collins, 265 pages, $25.95)
Lord Byron famously proclaimed that lobster salad, served with champagne, was the only thing a woman should be seen eating. Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, declared champagne to be the only wine that leaves a woman more beautiful after drinking it. A kind of champagne glass known as a coupe was even said to be modeled after this royal mistress’s much-admired décolletage.
These are just a few of the delights offered up by Tilar J. Mazzeo in “The Widow Clicquot,” the story of the woman who transformed a struggling family business into one of the great champagne houses of France. Told in a light and graceful style that is just right for its subject, “The Widow Clicquot” takes us on a journey from a well-stocked wine shop in the American Midwest to the dusty Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin company archives in Reims. It’s a fascinating trip, made even more so by Ms. Mazzeo’s charming cameo appearances as a kind of a tour guide.
The story begins in the summer of 1789, during the French Revolution, when 11-year-old Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the daughter of a prominent merchant, makes a dramatic escape from a royal convent school. Around the same time, her socially ambitious father deftly shifted his allegiance from the king to the revolutionaries, joining the Jacobin party that called for an end to the monarchy in France. The Ponsardin family’s fortunes, rooted in the textile trade, soared. At 20, Barbe-Nicole was wed to the son of a wealthy merchant family that dabbled in wine.
Barbe-Nicole and her new husband sought to recast his family’s business, focusing on its vineyard holdings in the Champagne region of France and on the burgeoning wine trade between the Continent and Britain. But there were obstacles. A delicate product, champagne was challenging to make, difficult to transport and likely to spoil if not stored at the right temperature. Ms. Mazzeo, a cultural historian, skillfully explains the subtleties of champagne production as well as the glamour that has long surrounded it. “Sales,” she notes, “depended on access to aristocratic circles, where people had the money to buy extravagantly expensive wines.”
The couple’s early efforts to crack the British market failed miserably, particularly after war between Britain and France ignited again. And although orders came in from the dukes and princes of Prussia and further east, the Napoleonic Wars made deliveries difficult. Only a few years into the marriage, Barbe-Nicole faced far greater troubles as well. Her husband died, officially of infectious fever. Rumors soon began circulating that he had committed suicide, in despair over the business.
Widowed at 27, Barbe-Nicole had learned in convent school that, as Ms. Mazzeo puts it, “the only women with public reputations were prostitutes or queens.” Yet the widow Clicquot defied such cliché and spent the next six decades laying the foundations for what would become a global brand, moving the business from its artisanal roots to a manufacturing model. In an early form of vertical integration, she blended, bottled and distributed her wines, even venturing into banking. Most of all, she was brilliant marketer, decorating her champagne with a bright orange label. It didn’t take long for the playboys in Mayfair clubs to begin ordering “a bottle of the widow.”
The most gripping moments in Barbe-Nicole’s saga occur in 1814 as Russian troops, retreating from battlefield defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s armies, threatened to overrun Reims, where the family’s then-flailing business was based. Ordering workmen to seal the entrance to her cellars, the widow hoped to prevent the soldiers from raiding her wines, especially those made in 1811, the year of a legendary grape harvest. The cellars were not looted, as it turned out; the soldiers mostly bought the wine, spreading the word of its nectar-like qualities when they returned east. “Today they drink,” she said. “Tomorrow they will pay!”
When the war came to an end, she planned the most daring gamble of her career: skirting the blockades one final time to deliver several thousand bottles of champagne by ship to the Russians ahead of her rivals and in advance of the formal restoration of trade. She secretly chartered a ship and knowingly broke the law— but achieved a commercial coup. Wine merchants waiting on the docks in Koenigsberg nearly came to blows over the shipment, and the price per bottle soared to 5 1/2 francs — the equivalent of a week’s wages for a vineyard worker.
By the time of her death in 1866, the widow Clicquot had become a legend, leaving behind one of the great family fortunes of France. In a rare personal letter written late in her life, she urged her last surviving great-grandchild: “Act with audacity. Perhaps you too will be famous . . . !!” No longer a family business, Veuve Clicquot is now owned by France’s LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton S.A., the world’s largest luxury-goods group. In 2007, the company sold an estimated 430,000 cases, or more than five million bottles, of the widow’s wine.
But this example of Barbe-Nicole’s voice is exceptional. In company archives, Ms. Mazzeo found “pages and pages of scolding correspondence” in which Barbe-Nicole writes about the shape of the bottles she wanted delivered or the quality of the corks she wanted cut. Sadly, Ms. Mazzeo found few personal letters and no diaries. As a result, “The Widow Clicquot” is filled with such phrases as “we have to imagine that . . .” Facing dearth of primary materials about the widow’s personal life, Ms. Mazzeo often resorts to intelligent guesswork. She admits that “telling the story of another woman’s life, I have learned, is as much a matter of sympathy as scholarship.” The result is an intoxicating business biography.
Ms. Flynn Siler, a Wall Street Journal writer, is the author of “The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.“