In The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman who Ruled It, Tilar J. Mazzeo sets out to unearth the story of the exceptional woman behind the ubiquitous luxury champagne brand. You know the one. Bright orange label? Sold in a box? Top shelf at the supermarket? The one you stare at longingly as you pick up a much less expensive prosecco or California sparkling wine? Yep, that’s the one.
Does Mazzeo succeed? Yes and no.
We meet Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1789, the privileged daughter of a wealthy, royalist merchant, fleeing for safety in the face of the French revolution. We follow her through her teen years, marriage, motherhood, and an early widowhood. We see her successes and failures as she grow a small, struggling company into one of the most successful champagne empires in France.
We also learn quite a bit about the Widow Clicquot’s world. Barbe-Nicole’s story is inextricable from the tumultuous history of post-revolutionary France, and Mazzeo does an excellent job of exploring the larger historical, economic, political, and social context. She pays special attention to gender and the ways that Barbe-Nicole was an exception in a world where women’s roles were being more and more narrowly defined.
We also learn a bunch about champagne, which satisfied my inner wine nerd. Fun facts I didn’t know:
- The story of Dom Perignon discovering champagne and shouting out “come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”– apocryphal. He didn’t invent champagne, and that line comes straight from a late 19th century advertisement.
- The English can make a convincing case for having invented champagne.
- The champagne being produced and drunk in the first half of the 19th century? Sweeter than most of the dessert wines around today. Sweeter than ice wine, people!
So it’s all there: Barbe-Nicole’s life, her world, Veuve Clicquot’s history, the story of champagne. Try as she might, Mazzeo just doesn’t breathe any life into Barbe-Nicole. She attempts to portray the Widow Clicquot was an exceptional, formidable, one-of-a-kind woman who changed the world. Unfortunately, the historical records that would tell us about this formidable woman (e.g. letters, journals, accounts of contemporaries) is extremely thin, and Mazzeo is left speculating about what Barbe-Nicole would have thought, must have felt, should have spoken. I understand the necessity of speculation, but the way Mazzeo executes it is clumsy, awkward, and ultimately distracting.
We do get a brief excerpt from a letter from Barbe-Nicole to her great-grandchild and see a glimpse of the woman Mazzeo is trying to bring life to:
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.
If the historical record had been kinder to Mazzeo, I suspect this could have been a remarkable book.
Despite these quibbles, I’d recommend this book to wine nerds interested in this bit of history.