The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

by Tilar J Mazzeo


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The Widow Clicquot is the New York Times bestselling business biography of the visionary young widow who built a champagne empire, became a legend in her tumultuous times, and showed the world how to live with style.

Tilar J. Mazzeo brings to life the woman behind the label, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, in this utterly intoxicating book that is as much a fascinating journey through the process of making this temperamental wine as a biography of a uniquely tempered and fascinating woman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061288586
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 113,168
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of numerous works of cultural history and biography, including the New York Times bestselling The Widow Clicquot, The Secret of Chanel No. 5, and nearly two dozen other books, articles, essays, and reviews on wine, travel, and the history of luxury. The Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, she divides her time between coastal Maine, New York City, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

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The Widow Clicquot
The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

Chapter One

Child of the Revolution, Child of the Champagne

What people in the Champagne remembered later about the summer of 1789 were the cobbled streets of Reims resounding with the chanting, angry mobs calling for liberty and equality. The French Revolution had begun, although no one would use those words yet to describe one of the most monumental events in the history of modern civilization. Democracy had taken root in the colonies of America only a decade before, and a new nation had emerged, aided in its war for independence from Great Britain by the military and financial might of France, one of the world's most powerful and ancient kingdoms. Now, democracy had also come to France. It was a bloody and brutal beginning.

The young girls in the royal convent of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, just beyond the old city center of Reims...a bustling commercial town of perhaps thirty thousand inhabitants, at the heart of the French textile industry and only ninety miles to the east of Paris...had little to do with this larger world of war and politics. Two centuries before, Mary, Queen of Scots had been a student in the abbey from the tender age of five, under the care of her aunt, the noble abbess Renée de Lorraine. The other girls at this Catholic convent school often came, like Mary Stuart and her noble aunt, from the ranks of the aristocracy, and they spent their days learning the graceful arts expected of the wealthy daughters of the social elite: embroidery, music, dance steps, and their prayers. The cloistered courtyard echoed with the light steps and rustling habits of nuns moving silently in the shadows, and the garden was shady and welcoming even in the summer heat.

Their parents had sent them to Saint-Pierre-les-Dames to be educated in safety and privilege. But in July 1789, a royal abbey was just possibly the most dangerous place of all for these girls. The nobility and the church had crushed the peasantry with crippling taxes for centuries, and suddenly that summer, long-simmering resentments finally broke out into an open class war that changed the history of France. Old scores were being settled in horrifying ways. It was only a matter of time before the nuns and these young girls...the daughters of the city's social elite...became the targets of public abuse. Already, there were stories from Paris of nuns being raped and the rich being murdered in the streets. Now, wine flowed from the public fountains, and the laughs and cheers of the crowd in Reims had become more and more feverish.

Behind the shuttered windows, cloistered within the royal walls of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, one of those girls may not have known that the world and her future were being transformed until the mob was nearly at their doorstep. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was eleven years old when the Revolution began. She was a small and serious girl, with golden blond hair and large gray eyes, the eldest daughter of one of the city's wealthiest and most important affluent and cultured man who dreamed of moving his family into the aristocracy and had sent his child, accordingly, to this prestigious royal convent to be educated with the daughters of feudal lords and princes.

Now, the streets of Reims were alive with angry crowds, and it seemed that Barbe-Nicole would share the fate of her aristocratic classmates. The shops everywhere were closed, and the fields were empty. In the center of the city, in the grand family mansion on rue Cérès, just beyond the shadow of the great cathedral, her parents...Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe and Marie Jeanne Josèphe Clémentine Ponsardin, or more simply Nicolas and Jeanne-Clémentine...were frantic. Even if there were a way to send a carriage through the streets of Reims to fetch Barbe-Nicole, such a display of wealth and fear would only advertise her privilege and increase her danger on the streets.

Their last hope rested with the family dressmaker, a modest woman but with remarkable bravery. Arriving quietly at the convent door with a small bundle of garments, anxious not to be observed, she knew the only way to spirit a wealthy daughter through the streets of revolutionary France: in disguise. After she dressed the child in the clothes of the working poor, they hurried. The shapeless tunic must have itched, and Barbe-Nicole's first steps in the coarse wooden different from her own soft leather slippers...were surely unsteady.

In another moment they had slipped out into the frenzied streets of Reims, praying to pass unnoticed. No one would bother a dressmaker or a peasant girl, but the convent-educated daughter of a bourgeois civic leader...a man who had personally helped to crown the king only a decade before...would make a compelling target for abuse. Much worse would happen to some of those whom Nicolas and Jeanne-Clémentine had entertained on those long summer evenings in the splendid halls of their family estate before the Revolution.

The roads beyond the convent were a brilliant red tide of men in Phrygian caps, classical symbols of liberty once worn by freed slaves in ancient democracies, singing familiar military marches with new words. In the distance was the sound of beating drums, and heels striking the cobble pavement echoed off the stone facades of the grandest buildings in Reims, as the men organized themselves into makeshift militias. There were fears throughout France of an imminent invasion, as the other great monarchs of Europe roused themselves to send troops to crush the popular uprising that had electrified the masses across the continent.

Hurrying through those chaotic streets must have been terrifying for a small girl. All around her was uproar as the mob gathered. They moved quickly past. Then, perhaps in the crowds of angry men, one or two looked at Barbe-Nicole with the perplexed stare of dim recognition. Perhaps she witnessed some of the many small atrocities of the Revolution...the vandalism, the beatings. The day was something no one who experienced it would ever forget.

The Widow Clicquot
The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
. Copyright © by Tilar Mazzeo. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue xi

Chapter 1 Child of the Revolution, Child of the Champagne 1

Chapter 2 Wedding Vows and Family Secrets 11

Chapter 3 Champagne Dreams 24

Chapter 4 Anonymity in Their Blood 36

Chapter 5 Crafting the Cuvée 49

Chapter 6 The Champagne Widow 60

Chapter 7 Partner and Apprentice 70

Chapter 8 Alone at the Brink of Ruin 84

Chapter 9 War and the Widow's Triumph 100

Chapter 10 A Comet over Russia: The Vintage of 1811 113

Chapter 11 The Industrialist's Daughter 121

Chapter 12 The Wine Aristocrats 130

Chapter 13 Flirting with Disaster 143

Chapter 14 The Champagne Empire 155

Chapter 15 La Grande Dame 166

Chapter 16 The Queen of Reims 178

Afterword 187

Acknowledgments 193

Notes 195

Selected Bibliography 239

Index 257

What People are Saying About This

Mireille Guiliano

“Joan of Arc and Madame Clicquot were the two women heroes I knew when growing up in France. What a gift to have this new, well-researched biography of one of the world’s first ‘legitimate’ businesswoman, our contemporary as a global business leader.”

Julia Flynn Siler

“Told in a light and graceful style that is just right for its subject…. [I]t’s a fascinating trip, made even more so by Ms. Mazzeo’s charming cameo appearances as a kind of tour guide…. This example of Barbe-Nicole’s voice is exceptional…an intoxicating business biography.”

From the Publisher

"Narrative history that fizzes with life and feeling." —-Benjamin Wallace, author of the New York Times bestseller The Billionaire's Vinegar

Benjamin Wallace

“The Widow Clicquot is someone we should all know about.... Long a shadowy, legend-obscured figure, in Tilar Mazzeo’s agile hands the widow sheds her weeds and takes form before our eyes as a distinctly modern entrepreneur....The result is narrative history that fizzes with life and feeling.”

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The Widow Clicquot: The History of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ms. Mazzeo started her quest to reconstruct the life of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot with a well intentioned zeal, and clear desire to extol the virtues of a businesswomen before the term had even been coined. Her initial premise was flawed in that Madame Clicquot, by her own admission, was like most businesswomen of the Napoleonic Era in that she stepped into the role as the result of a death of the patriarch either their fathers or husbands, in this case her young, fragile husband. Rather than take up the reins on her own she immediately embraced male business partners and professional sales and managerial staff to whom she delegated many of the major duties of running a wine wholesale business and ultimately a full production estate winery. While Clicquot¿s accomplishments were many, as were her failures, they were not done by her alone as the precursor of the modern female entrepreneur. To expect this of a young widow in the mid 1800s was simply too much to hope for and an unfair imposition of our modern constructs; fighting against fact to prove so is unfair to Clicquot as it distracts from her authentic accomplishments.

The narrative is forced by Ms. Mazzeo with insufficient historical material leaving a story filled with awkward conjecture. Perhaps because of a lack of foresight in keeping the papers of the Widow Clicquot or simply because running a business and raising a family left precious little time for diaries and social correspondence there is precious little in the way of personal details beyond sales records and a few impersonal letters to her chief salesman during his travels.

What does come through from the facts and figures is that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was a brave and adventurous woman. The daughter of a wealthy textile merchant who married another Reims elite, another son of a textile merchant and wine distributor, she was destined for a comfortable provincial life until the Napoleonic Wars and the premature death of her husband interfered. Her aggressive expansion into Russia, running blockades, and out innovating her competitors showed a brilliant mind and an appetite for risk.

Bits of wine wisdom peppered throughout the book were not enough to propel the story along but included such interesting party knowledge as name for the wine cages (muselet) and the metal cork cap (capsulets) both invented by Adolphe Jacquesson in the 1840s. The fact that Dr. Jules Guyot ¿invented¿ the practice of growing grapes in rows to increase evenness in ripeness, prior to the widespread use of this practice they were grown in round clusters for support. And perhaps most interestingly and relevant that the widow Clicquot invented the riddling racks out of her kitchen table as a way to speed the disgorgement process whereby the yeast is cleared out of the wine and removed from the bottle. She was also on the forefront of our modern conception of branding by being among the first to use a signature color in sealing her bottles, adding labels, and marketing prestigious vintages.

While this book makes marginal gains in Champagne scholarship and will be a useful reference for future authors it fails in its primary task of informing and entertaining the reader.
cannonball More than 1 year ago
I love the champagne and thought I would enjoy the book. The author, however, was plagued by lack of primary sources creating a book that does little to flesh out her subject. What's left is a thin social history describing the role of women in nineteenth century France and an explanation of the difficulties of exporting a luxury product during the Napoleonic Wars.
Chaucer More than 1 year ago
The publisher and author should be chastised for allowing the WORK OF FICTION to be classified as a Biography. The author waits until the end of the book to confirm what this reader presumed all along -- that in the absence of any good factual information on the life of the Widow, she chose to surmise or make up the Widow's character. She crafted the widow as she hoped she might have been. The text is littered with 'must have's and 'no doubt's and 'surely's. The historical factual material that is present in the book relates not to the Widow but to the times in which she lived. At best, this is a "tale". Readers who want to learn about the Widow Clicquot would be better served by investing in a bottle of her bubbly than in this tale cloaked in in biographical clothing.
Flamingo_Book_Club More than 1 year ago
My book club just finished reading this book and felt that the amount of actual FACTUAL material about Barbe-Nicole could be summarized in a chapter (versus the supposition that is liberally used throughout the book because there are no facts). If supposition were the only recourse, this book would better have been written as a novel on the order of Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran. Significantly pared down, this book would make a great article in a good wine or food magazine...again, just sticking to the facts.
BlueDog807 More than 1 year ago
After reading The Billionaire's Vinegar, I was unsure about how this book would read. However, my love of Champagene and history won out and I bought the book. I am glad that I did. The author did a great job making a flowing story from the great amount of history that makes up the story of The Widow. This book does not read like a bestseller, but if you enjoy a story about someone who can pull themselves out of the ashes, and make great things happen, then be sure to pick this book up.
Iora More than 1 year ago
Mazzeo writes a story that includes the backdrop of the French revolution, a history of champagne making, and how unusual it was for a woman to take control of a family's side business when she was widowed in her 20's. The story moves along quickly, and you'll only slow down your reading because you'll Google the pronunciation of French words or want to know where these villages are on a map. A fascinating non-fiction read and you'll learn so much about the making of champagne.
PanchaBuenosAires More than 1 year ago
Loved the book, besides learning about the story of Madame Clicquot, you get a great scoop about champagne making and a great description of the historical facts of the time, war, diseases, culture, relationships, protocol, etc. Will enjoy my next bottle of "THE WIDOW" differently next time. Cant' wait for the next Tilar Mazzeo book.
CookingWiz More than 1 year ago
This seemed like it would be an interesting book, however the author's interjections of her own thoughts,feelings and guesses while reflecting on the subject detracted from the story and blurred the historical facts. I would not recommend to any of my friends.
ezwriter More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting book for wine lovers and history buffs. The writer must have had to do voluminous research as so little, as regards women and businesses, was saved. Madame Cliquot was unusual in that she ran a business and appeared in a brief time period when it was permissable for females to do so. The appeal of champagne which we tend to think of as a French connection was spread to England and Russia by the upperclasses, particularly royalty. To be the official wine of the king carries the same cache that we think of a manufacturer sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth and it was a profitable relationship for those who had that connection. The upheaval in France between freeman and royalty was also touched upon in this book. A great gift for a wine lover, even if they prefer varieties other than champagne!
Berly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you like champagne; or strong, independent women; history; or perhaps les Francais, you will definitely enjoy this book. This was an amazing tour of the Champagne region of France, the origins of champagne, a tumultuous period in French history, as well as the story of one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in history. It unfolds with interesting details, humorous reflections, and great insight: an amazing blend of history, adventure, and science. The book itself reminds me of champagne: effervescent and intoxicating (but not Brut!). I read it straight through in a day. Five stars.In this story, we follow the life of Barbe-Nicole Cliquot from cloistered early childhood in a nunnery to her success ¿at the helm of an internationally renowned commercial empire¿ and through to her death at the astoundingly ripe old age of 89, living decades beyond the average life span of the times. She had three major achievements in her career: ¿internationalizing the Champagne market,¿ ¿establishing brand identification,¿ and developing the process known in French as remuage sur pupitre¿literally ¿moving by desk¿ (the process still used today to remove impurities without losing the fizz of champagne). Along the journey, the reader will discover, among other things, who actually invented champagne (was it the English or the French?), how sabrage (the art of opening a champagne bottle with a sword) came to be, and how the end of Napoleonic Wars would help cement champagne¿s broad commercial appeal as a drink of festivity and celebration.Details of women¿s lives back in the late 1700¿s were sketchy at best, unless you were royalty or married to someone famous. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was neither, yet Mazzeo does a wonderful job of filling in the blanks. ¿I have found myself becoming a scavenger of uncollected details about her life and the world in which she lived¿I wanted to discover not just what she did and when she lived, but how she was able to imagine for herself a different future and how she was able to negotiate those familiar crossroads of grief, despair, and opportunity. It sometimes took considerable imagination. The facts in this story are true¿as true as history can make them¿Barbe-Nicole was not, of course, immortalized in history at all--only the company that she created and the name she made famous survived beyond the end of the nineteenth century. I hope that here, at least, she has been the heroine of her own story.¿ And so she is.
nemoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I expected a biography; however, it became apparent early into the book that Mazzeo simply did not have near enough material to write one. Instead Matteo uses the arc of Clicquot's career to show the development of the champagne industry against the backdrop of enormous political and economic changes in nineteenth century Europe. Although Clicquot was unique in terms of being a female CEO, she was not that unique in terms of the particular industry she was in . I did learn some new facts about champagne, including the fact that it originally was very sweet, with about 300 grams of sugar per bottle - more than say sauternes. There is also a suggestion that champagne originally was invented by the British, Moreover it was the British preference for dryer wine that lead to the development of the brut which is the favored modern style. Sacrebleu!
Kasthu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Widow Clicquot is the story of the woman behind one of the world¿s most famous and iconic champagnes. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was born in 1777 in Reims, and married an idealistic dreamer at a young age. When he died, Barbe-Nicole entered his family¿s business, and proved herself to be a shrewd businesswoman. Barbe-Nicole survived the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars (during which Napoleon apparently said that the vineyards of the Champagne would make perfect battlegrounds), and the civil wars of the mid-nineteenth century. She was a diminutive, nondescript woman, but she proved herself a force to be reckoned with in the champagne industry, turning a local curiosity into an international brand.The book is a combination of things: its part biography, part story of the Veuve Clicquot empire, and part history of champagne-making in general (surprise! It wasn¿t the French who discovered the art of creating the now-famous bubbles). Although Barbe-Nicole was one of the most famous businesswomen of the nineteenth century, there¿s not much biography here, per se: the author tries to fill in gaps with a lot of conjecture, using phrases such as ¿perhaps she felt¿¿ and ¿maybe¿¿ Generally, storytelling that way is for me an attempt by an author to put words into people¿s mouths or thoughts into their heads that they might not actually have had. However, I thought the historical detail was quite good, as well as the descriptions of the techniques used to make champagne. Even I, as a non-connoisseur, was able to grasp what was going on there.However, I expected more of a biography; I was really drawn by the story of a completely average woman accomplishing extraordinary things. But what the reader is given here works, too: a lot of the book shows the author¿s passion for wine and its production. I just wish that there had been a bit more focus. That said however, the book inspired me to track down a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, just to see what all the fuss was about. This is the kind of book that¿s perfect for wine and champagne lovers.
nimgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book is poorly written. It struggles between being nonfiction since there is limited information. At the same time, the author appears to have a wealth of letters between the widow and her sales and that she skims over. The editor would have been wise to advise her to either make the book historical fiction or not to speculate so much in the book.
dla911 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I admit that I initially read this book due to my great interest in wine. But I soon realized that it was really a great study in successful entrepreneur-ism under incredibly challenging conditions.The Widow Clicquot is the story of France's first Champagne empire, one created and ruled by an entrepreneurial woman who overcame huge challenges in a man's world of the late 1700's-early 1800's. I highly recommend it to all women entrepreneurs who want some insights in making it in a male dominated society.I won't go into the whole story as the book is a quick read, but just review a few highlights. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin was born into a middle class entrepreneurial family in 1778 in Reims--today the world capital of Champagne production. She barely survived the French Revolution in 1789, only by a kindly servant smuggling her out of danger. She married young, and asked for the families wine shipping business as part of her dowry. Her husband promptly died and she was left with running the business. Wars constantly shut down European borders to wine exports, poor vineyard management ruined vintages, business partners were untrustworthy, to name a few of her travails. Having a top sales guy who traveled Europe, avoided arrest at every turn and was consistently loyal to her for years was a key success factor. She expanded in the early years beyond shipping other producers wine into making her own Champagne, working tirelessly to create a cachet around her brand by convincing kings, queens and nobles--especially the Russians-- to fall in love with the bubbly. At least twice the business should have failed but Barbe-Nicole always found a way to survive, including smuggling her wines across closed borders.To be sure, the book has its faults. Little is known about Barbe-Nicole's personal life and much of her business savvy needs interpolation from scanty company records. This does not take anything away from her remarkable feats in surviving during a time when war was the norm and peace a distant hope in Europe. The author takes liberties with lots of references on what might have happened instead of facts. But the facts do not exist and I never felt she seriously overstepped her bounds
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