Our Sparkling Wine of the Month for July is the top-notch Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne, so an ideal time to revisit the story of the first female Champagne CEO: Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin. Tilar J Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and The Woman Who Ruled It is a historical piece that unearths the origins and meteoric rise of the Veuve Clicquot brand.
The book traces the history of the brand from the 1800s to the modern day, examining the winemaking, marketing, production, distribution and management that made this yellow-labelled Champagne brand so iconic. Part business autobiography, part French history, part wine history, this New York Times bestseller toes the line between several genres at once.
As a former history student and current Champagne fanatic, it’s no surprise that I found this book fascinating. Putting aside my personal tastes, one can objectively appreciate the strength of Mazzeo in creating a easy-to-read and rousing story of a 27-year-old widow, ignoring the cultural restraints of Napoleonic France and becoming one of the original businesswomen of France (if not the world.)
Lobster and champagne
At a time when Angela Merkel is Chancellor of Germany and Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee-in-waiting in the 2016 US elections, it may be difficult to imagine a world when ‘lobster salad and Champagne were the only things a woman should ever be seen eating’, as Lord Byron once said, but Mazzeo does just this. The author takes readers and transports them to 1805 when a young widow is forced to fend for herself (and her late husband’s Champagne brand) in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars.
For wine fans who picked up the book in the hope of discovering more about the history of Champagne and its winemaking, The Widow Clicquot does not disappoint. Mazzeo expertly explores the craft of ‘riddling’ which the Widow (Veuve) Clicquot perfected (the method of coaxing the yeast and sediment out of wine bottles, removing the visually unappealing cloudiness from Champagne). Furthermore, Mazzeo is more than happy to participate in some historical myth-busting of her own, suggesting that indeed it wasn’t the Champenois who invented sparkling wine, but rather the folk of Limoux, in the Languedoc some 600 miles south.
Those looking for a personal look into this widow-turned-entrepreneur will be slightly let down. The book, for all its extensive and wide investigations, lacks personal insight into the life of Barbe-Nicole, rarely being able to draw on diary entries, letters or trivia. This unfortunately leads to a fair degree of speculation and assumption, nowhere more so that the description of her husband’s death where the author isn’t able to make a firm assertion as to the cause. So sadly, this autobiography falls short in not helping paint an image of the actual women behind the label, more the environment in which she built a Champagne empire.
While The Widow Clicquot might lack the personal insight into this businesswomen compared to one (of many) Richard Branson’s books, Mazzeo’s work expertly navigates popular genres of biography, history, and winemaking. Its strengths lie in its broad appeal. Available in paperback, this bestseller is a perfect companion as you wait for a bottle of ‘the Widow’ to chill.