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!

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