The business of bubbly

A Mainer's new book explores the queen of champagne
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  November 5, 2008

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (say that a few times fast) is a woman after my own heart. A non-assuming woman, she wanted to make "champagne not just something for the rich and famous, but something for ordinary middle-class people ready to celebrate little luxuries as wonderful and as simple as the beginning of a weekend," Tilar Mazzeo writes in her new biography, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Harper Collins). Hey, me too! But these egalitarian goals belied an intense ambition, one that placed Barbe-Nicole at the helm of a successful, international, ground-breaking champagne operation.

Groomed for middle-class female domestic invisibility in the wake of the French Revolution, Barbe-Nicole made history by instead taking the reins of a faltering business during the early 1800s. It was a time when quasi-acceptable female entrepreneurship was going out of vogue, as the male-dominated industrial revolution took hold. But Barbe-Nicole, acting with an inherent "audacity" that Mazzeo, an assistant English professor at Colby College, only explicitly explores in the final pages of her book, flouted such societal norms. After her husband died, leaving her a young widow, the plain, diminutive woman carried on the family business with which she'd become enamored.

"Success was not just uncertain, but unlikely," Mazzeo writes. But the right blend of meticulous attention to detail, combined with ingenuity and bravery, fermented in Barbe-Nicole a brilliant business sense. For example, the process of remuage, which allows champagne to be produced quickly in large quantities, is a Barbe-Nicole brainchild. Plus, she defied war blockades to ship her product to foreign consumers who soon became devoted fans. In turn, the sparkling wine we now associate with joy and special occasions transformed from a regional oddity to an international phenomenon. By the time she died, at age 89 in 1866, she was called "the Grand Lady of Champagne" — and it was quite a title.

Yet this grand lady was, as Mazzeo states in her introduction and explores intermittently throughout her book, a study in contradictions. While she dominated in the wine world, her personal life was traditional, and unexceptional. In contrast to colorful specimens of her day like Marie Antoinette, Barbe-Nicole was, as far as we know, boring. And we don't know much, because despite Mazzeo's impressive scholarship, the champagne queen's life is, and will likely continue to be, shrouded in her age's tendency to discount female histories. Little of her personal effects remain. Even as her name became branded, the Widow Clicquot was (and is) a mystery to her consumers.

"Perhaps this curious manifestation of the public anonymity that should have been her destiny ... was part of the reason a woman-owned business was about to flourish in an increasingly conservative post-war Europe," Mazzeo writes.

The Widow Clicquot suffers somewhat from this dearth of personal information. Through no fault of Mazzeo's, but rather because of the times, we're left with a skeletal portrait of this brave businesswoman. We want more of what Mazzeo includes at the end of the book — an excerpt from a letter Barbe-Nicole sent to her great-granddaughter toward the end of her life, which reads, in part: "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. Perhaps you too will be famous...!"

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