Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cheers to the Widow!

The name Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin does not come tripling off the tongue, nor is it familiar to many. But when presented with the goldenrod-labeled bottle, many a savvy wine drinker instantly recognizes her, La Veuve Clicquot.

In Tilar Mazzeo’s 2008 book The Widow Clicquot, the woman who merited little or no biographical chronicling in her own time is brought to life as a wife and mother, but more importantly, as a wine maker and an entrepreneur well ahead of her time.

Barbe-Nicole’s story is compelling for a number of reasons. The daughter of a bourgeois textile merchant with royalist leanings, she survived the French Revolution to marry a young man who took her not only as his partner in life but in business as well. She and husband Francois began a (then unique) wine distribution enterprise that brought the vintages of Champagne to Russia, Prussia and other parts of Europe that would eventually be at war with Napoleon’s France. Francois died of typhoid fever before Barbe-Nicole turned 30 (she would wear widow’s weeds for over 60 years), but she took advantage of the status granted her as a wealthy widow to continue the family business.

By today’s standards, a woman taking the helm of her husband’s business is not unusual, but in 19th century France, this was certainly not the norm. Let’s remember that Francois and Barbe-Nicole were equal partners; after his death, she maintained a business partnership with several other men, which increased the revenues and reputation of her Champagne house. The cottage industries that allowed bourgeois woman to make a living – needlework, dairy farming and the like – in the late 1700’s had gone out of fashion by the time Barbe-Nicole was widowed in 1804. When presented with the obstacles that may have otherwise thwarted a less determined person, she persevered.
According to Ms. Mazzeo, “Barbe-Nicole became an ardent industrialist. She was not just the first woman to build a commercial champagne house founded on new mercantilist principles; she was one of only a handful of entrepreneurs to do it all. She wasn’t just an amazing businesswoman. She was amazing at business."
As amazing as she was at business, her great passion was her product, Champagne, and she took great pains to make it the best on the market. Champagne is a fragile and fickle concoction, and the 19th version did not benefit from the refinements contemporary winemakers have had at their disposal; there was still a lot of guess work involved in the quality and consistency of the final product. Barbe-Nicole brought to Champagne a singular technique that made all the difference in clarity, taste and stability – riddling, or Remuage. “Part of the M├ęthode Champenoise, riddling (Remuage) is the shaking process by which dead yeasts are moved to the neck of the bottle after the second fermentation.” ( Our modern celebrations have La Veuve to thank for making them more effervescent and enjoyable!

Winemaking is not the most “female-friendly” business. Barbe-Nicole succeeded in a time when a woman, in any endeavor, was not greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm. To have created a 200 year old legacy in a male-dominated industry is one of La Veuve’s lasting accomplishments. That Cecile Bonneford has been the president of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin since 2001 is another, and I salute her! Vive la femme!

To designate their wines, before labels were used, winemakers burnt symbols into the corks that would seal their vintages. Madame Clicquot chose the anchor as her emblem. Representing hope, the anchor is a fitting icon for La Veuve. Hope, mixed with an uncanny business sense, has surely made Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin the enduring Champagne house it is today.

As an ardent imbiber of Champagne, and as a female entrepreneur, I have only the greatest respect and admiration for Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin.

Cheers this New Year’s Eve! I’m popping my bottle of Le Veuve right now!

And here's to Hope and all it can bring us in 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Julian, Greg and a Date for New Year’s

As I researched the history of New Year’s, I found lots of fascinating customs used worldwide to bid the old adieu and welcome the new. Many involve flammable objects of one sort or another, and the Philippine tradition of wearing polka-dots struck me as quite creative. What really absorbed my time and brain cells, though, was some head-spinning reading about how January 1st actually became New Year’s Day. That’s where Julian and Greg come in.

With all due respect, Julian is actually Julius Caesar and Greg is Pope Gregory XIII, both of Rome, both highly influential in their respective times and both with an eponymous calendar.

It was at the behest of Julius Caesar to better serve his expanding empire that a new Roman calendar was adopted in 709 BC. Based on the solar calendars used by the Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians, the new calendar was adapted by Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes and consisted of a system similar to what we have today, using the solstices and equinoxes to determine months and seasons.

Controversy entered the picture when it came time to determine the start of the New Year. Caesar being Caesar insisted that either the vernal equinox in March or the winter solstice in December signal the beginning. The Roman Senate flexed its veto powers, though, and being good public servants, declared January 1st, the opening day of their annual session, to begin the Roman civil year. Ever the savvy politician, Caesar bowed to the Senate’s wishes, but he still got calendar name rights.

Senate edict, or not, New Year’s Day in the Roman world was still more closely associated with the vernal equinox. As Christianity became the official faith of Rome, religious holidays coincided with those associated with the empire’s Pagan past. The Feast of the Annunciation (the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive the Son of God) on March 25, nine months prior to Christmas Day, commenced the springtime new year. It is no coincidence that Easter, too, should be celebrated at this time of new life. In fact, it was Easter that brought about the change in calendars.

Now Greg enters our story. According to The Julian and Gregorian Calendars by Peter Meyer “… after about 131 years the calendar is out of sync with the equinoxes and solstices by one day. Thus as the centuries passed the Julian Calendar became increasingly inaccurate with respect to the seasons. This was especially troubling to the Roman Catholic Church because it affected the determination of the date of Easter, which, by the 16th Century, was well on the way to slipping into summer.”

In his 1582 reforms, Pope Gregory XIII invoked an edict by the First Council of Nicaea which in 325 AD declared that Easter must correspond with the Vernal Equinox. To reestablish this precedent in light of Easter’s wondering into June, the Gregorian calendar was established, deleting 10 days from the calendar, readjusting leap years and creating a strict determination of the dates on which Easter would fall.

Most of Western Europe implemented the Gregorian calendar over the next 150 or so years, but this still did not establish a universal New Year’s Day. The significance of either the winter solstice or vernal equinox in various locales was more likely to determine the commencement of the New Year, which could be observed on March 1, March 25, December 25 or January 1. (Confusing, to say the least, for champagne sales, but that’s another post.) England and its colonies joined the Gregorian club in 1752, declared January 1st to be the New Year’s Day and the rest of Western Europe followed suit. The Greek and Eastern Orthodox Churches remained on the Julian system, but that’s way too complicated to get into here.

January 1st is also significant in that it commemorates the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, 8 days after Christmas Day which is also 4 days after the Winter Solstice. This once again illustrates Rome’s fine ability of folding the pagan rituals of the empire’s conquered western colonies into its Christian embrace.

Given New Year’s contemporary lay observance, it’s interesting to note the Church’s involvement in January 1st's eventual selection as the start of the year. It is the melding of the secular and the sacred that has given us so many holidays and celebrations. And where would we be without Julius and Greg? Be sure to give them a clink of the glass as you toast 2010!