Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Widow Clicquot and the Business of Bubbly

The pop of a cork evokes celebrations, the Jazz Age, weddings, and New Year’s Eve kisses.  A few years ago, I traveled to Champagne, France, with my mother and sister in search of the birthplace of the alluring bubbly. As Francophiles and budding oenophiles, we were in heaven. 

After touring prestigious Champagne houses, small family-run Champagne production facilities, charming villages, and picturesque vineyards, my passion for Champagne has grown, from both a gustatory and a scholarly perspective.  Along the latter lines, I recently read Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Harper Collins, 2008), an intoxicating biography of the entrepreneurial Grande Dame and the origins of the business of Champagne.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the namesake of Veuve Clicquot Champagne, was the innovative woman who established Champagne as the most famous luxury product in the world. Although the iconic yellow label that bears her name is legendary, the story of her life is not well-known. Mazzeo shines light on her story, suggesting: “Hers is the portrait of a woman with the courage to step into the breach, emotionally, physically, and financially.” 

At the age of 27, after the untimely death of her husband, Barbe-Nicole took over the family business and became one of the first businesswomen of modern times. During the tumultuous period of post-revolutionary France, she was not afraid to enter into a new business and new markets. Although she had no business training or experience, she transformed a struggling, small, family-run wine brokerage into arguably the most important Champagne house of the nineteenth century in just over a decade.

Although Barbe-Nicole managed the company, she remained involved with the labors of wine making. In 1810, she recorded the first Vintage Champagne, meaning it was made from a single exceptional year rather than a blend of multiple harvests.  In 1816, she invented the first riddling rack to remove sediment from the wine, resulting in a clear and sparking beverage. Without the riddling rack, Mazzeo argues that “Champagne could never have become the world’s most famous wine.”

By the time she was 40, Barbe-Nicole was one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Europe and one of the first businesswomen in history to lead an international commercial empire. Illustrating her bold spirit, Barbe-Nicole, reflecting on her life, wrote to her great-grandchild in the 1860s, “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.” Veuve Clicquot pays tribute to Barbe-Nicole with the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award that is awarded to outstanding entrepreneurial woman each year.  

Next time you raise a glass to toast the New Year, remember the audacious widow Clicquot–the daring entrepreneur who embraced the future and transformed the Champagne industry.

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