The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

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Overview

The story of the visionary young widow who built a champagne empire, showed the world how to live with style, and emerged a legend

Veuve Clicquot champagne epitomizes glamour, style, and luxury. But who was this young widow—the Veuve Clicquot—whose champagne sparkled at the courts of France, Britain, and Russia, and how did she rise to celebrity and fortune?

In The Widow Clicquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo brings to life—for the first time—the ...

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Overview

The story of the visionary young widow who built a champagne empire, showed the world how to live with style, and emerged a legend

Veuve Clicquot champagne epitomizes glamour, style, and luxury. But who was this young widow—the Veuve Clicquot—whose champagne sparkled at the courts of France, Britain, and Russia, and how did she rise to celebrity and fortune?

In The Widow Clicquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo brings to life—for the first time—the fascinating woman behind the iconic yellow label: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. A young witness to the dramatic events of the French Revolution and a new widow during the chaotic years of the Napoleonic Wars, Barbe-Nicole defied convention by assuming—after her husband's death—the reins of the fledgling wine business they had nurtured. Steering the company through dizzying political and financial reversals, she became one of the world's first great businesswomen and one of the richest women of her time.

Although the Widow Clicquot is still a legend in her native France, her story has never been told in all its richness—until now. Painstakingly researched and elegantly written, The Widow Clicquot provides a glimpse into the life of a woman who arranged clandestine and perilous champagne deliveries to Russia one day and entertained Napoléon and Joséphine Bonaparte on another. She was a daring and determined entrepreneur, a bold risk taker, and an audacious and intelligent woman who took control of her own destiny when fate left her on the brink of financial ruin. Her legacy lives on today, not simply through the famous product that still bears her name, but now through Mazzeo's finely crafted book. As much a fascinating journey through the process of making this temperamental wine as a biography of a uniquely tempered woman, The Widow Clicquot is utterly intoxicating.

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Editorial Reviews

Associated Press
“If you like champagne, “The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar J. Mazzeo is definitely worth a drink.”
Newsday
“Tilar J. Mazzeo’s informed and enlightening biography of Madame Clicquot, the widow and, more important, the businesswoman, retrieves her vintage story as if looking for a rare bottle in one of the Champagne region’s deepest caves.”
Los Angeles Times
“Mazzeo’s tale moves swiftly through Barbe-Nicole’s many accomplishments, including her method for storing bottles nose-down—an innovation that allowed the second fermentation detritus to be cleared efficiently, setting her far ahead of her competitors.”
USA Today
“Mazzeo’s resulting book is an enticing stew of biography and history.”
New York Times Book Review
“The Widow Clicquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s sweeping oenobiography of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, is the story of a woman who was a smashing success long before anyone conceptualized the glass ceiling.”
Austin Chronicle
The Widow Clicquot is a miraculous feat of organization, one worthy of a doctoral thesis…. [I]n its moments of action, this is actually a gripping story. And while the book appears to be a feminist history/business biography, it’s also the appealing story of the author’s odyssey.
Canberra Times
“This book is full of fascinating morsels of information.”
Mireille Guiliano
“Joan of Arc and Madame Clicquot were the two women heroes I knew when growing up in France. What a gift to have this new, well-researched biography of one of the world’s first ‘legitimate’ businesswoman, our contemporary as a global business leader.”
Benjamin Wallace
“The Widow Clicquot is someone we should all know about.... Long a shadowy, legend-obscured figure, in Tilar Mazzeo’s agile hands the widow sheds her weeds and takes form before our eyes as a distinctly modern entrepreneur....The result is narrative history that fizzes with life and feeling.”
Julia Flynn Siler
“Told in a light and graceful style that is just right for its subject…. [I]t’s a fascinating trip, made even more so by Ms. Mazzeo’s charming cameo appearances as a kind of tour guide…. This example of Barbe-Nicole’s voice is exceptional…an intoxicating business biography.”
From the Publisher
"Narrative history that fizzes with life and feeling." —-Benjamin Wallace, author of the New York Times bestseller The Billionaire's Vinegar
Los Angeles Times
“Mazzeo’s tale moves swiftly through Barbe-Nicole’s many accomplishments, including her method for storing bottles nose-down—an innovation that allowed the second fermentation detritus to be cleared efficiently, setting her far ahead of her competitors.”
Canberra Times
“This book is full of fascinating morsels of information.”
New York Times Book Review
“The Widow Clicquot, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s sweeping oenobiography of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, is the story of a woman who was a smashing success long before anyone conceptualized the glass ceiling.”
Austin Chronicle
The Widow Clicquot is a miraculous feat of organization, one worthy of a doctoral thesis…. [I]n its moments of action, this is actually a gripping story. And while the book appears to be a feminist history/business biography, it’s also the appealing story of the author’s odyssey.
USA Today
“Mazzeo’s resulting book is an enticing stew of biography and history.”
Newsday
“Tilar J. Mazzeo’s informed and enlightening biography of Madame Clicquot, the widow and, more important, the businesswoman, retrieves her vintage story as if looking for a rare bottle in one of the Champagne region’s deepest caves.”
Associated Press Staff
“If you like champagne, “The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar J. Mazzeo is definitely worth a drink.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061288562
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2008
  • Pages: 265
  • Sales rank: 233,632
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Tilar J. Mazzeo

Tilar J. Mazzeo is a cultural historian, biographer, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot. She lives in northern California, New York City, and Maine, where she teaches English at Colby College.

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Read an Excerpt

The Widow Clicquot
The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

Chapter One

Child of the Revolution, Child of the Champagne

What people in the Champagne remembered later about the summer of 1789 were the cobbled streets of Reims resounding with the chanting, angry mobs calling for liberty and equality. The French Revolution had begun, although no one would use those words yet to describe one of the most monumental events in the history of modern civilization. Democracy had taken root in the colonies of America only a decade before, and a new nation had emerged, aided in its war for independence from Great Britain by the military and financial might of France, one of the world's most powerful and ancient kingdoms. Now, democracy had also come to France. It was a bloody and brutal beginning.

The young girls in the royal convent of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, just beyond the old city center of Reims...a bustling commercial town of perhaps thirty thousand inhabitants, at the heart of the French textile industry and only ninety miles to the east of Paris...had little to do with this larger world of war and politics. Two centuries before, Mary, Queen of Scots had been a student in the abbey from the tender age of five, under the care of her aunt, the noble abbess Renée de Lorraine. The other girls at this Catholic convent school often came, like Mary Stuart and her noble aunt, from the ranks of the aristocracy, and they spent their days learning the graceful arts expected of the wealthy daughters of the social elite: embroidery, music, dance steps, and their prayers. The cloistered courtyard echoed with the light steps and rustling habits of nuns moving silently in the shadows, and the garden was shady and welcoming even in the summer heat.

Their parents had sent them to Saint-Pierre-les-Dames to be educated in safety and privilege. But in July 1789, a royal abbey was just possibly the most dangerous place of all for these girls. The nobility and the church had crushed the peasantry with crippling taxes for centuries, and suddenly that summer, long-simmering resentments finally broke out into an open class war that changed the history of France. Old scores were being settled in horrifying ways. It was only a matter of time before the nuns and these young girls...the daughters of the city's social elite...became the targets of public abuse. Already, there were stories from Paris of nuns being raped and the rich being murdered in the streets. Now, wine flowed from the public fountains, and the laughs and cheers of the crowd in Reims had become more and more feverish.

Behind the shuttered windows, cloistered within the royal walls of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames, one of those girls may not have known that the world and her future were being transformed until the mob was nearly at their doorstep. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was eleven years old when the Revolution began. She was a small and serious girl, with golden blond hair and large gray eyes, the eldest daughter of one of the city's wealthiest and most important businessmen...an affluent and cultured man who dreamed of moving his family into the aristocracy and had sent his child, accordingly, to this prestigious royal convent to be educated with the daughters of feudal lords and princes.

Now, the streets of Reims were alive with angry crowds, and it seemed that Barbe-Nicole would share the fate of her aristocratic classmates. The shops everywhere were closed, and the fields were empty. In the center of the city, in the grand family mansion on rue Cérès, just beyond the shadow of the great cathedral, her parents...Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe and Marie Jeanne Josèphe Clémentine Ponsardin, or more simply Nicolas and Jeanne-Clémentine...were frantic. Even if there were a way to send a carriage through the streets of Reims to fetch Barbe-Nicole, such a display of wealth and fear would only advertise her privilege and increase her danger on the streets.

Their last hope rested with the family dressmaker, a modest woman but with remarkable bravery. Arriving quietly at the convent door with a small bundle of garments, anxious not to be observed, she knew the only way to spirit a wealthy daughter through the streets of revolutionary France: in disguise. After she dressed the child in the clothes of the working poor, they hurried. The shapeless tunic must have itched, and Barbe-Nicole's first steps in the coarse wooden shoes...so different from her own soft leather slippers...were surely unsteady.

In another moment they had slipped out into the frenzied streets of Reims, praying to pass unnoticed. No one would bother a dressmaker or a peasant girl, but the convent-educated daughter of a bourgeois civic leader...a man who had personally helped to crown the king only a decade before...would make a compelling target for abuse. Much worse would happen to some of those whom Nicolas and Jeanne-Clémentine had entertained on those long summer evenings in the splendid halls of their family estate before the Revolution.

The roads beyond the convent were a brilliant red tide of men in Phrygian caps, classical symbols of liberty once worn by freed slaves in ancient democracies, singing familiar military marches with new words. In the distance was the sound of beating drums, and heels striking the cobble pavement echoed off the stone facades of the grandest buildings in Reims, as the men organized themselves into makeshift militias. There were fears throughout France of an imminent invasion, as the other great monarchs of Europe roused themselves to send troops to crush the popular uprising that had electrified the masses across the continent.

Hurrying through those chaotic streets must have been terrifying for a small girl. All around her was uproar as the mob gathered. They moved quickly past. Then, perhaps in the crowds of angry men, one or two looked at Barbe-Nicole with the perplexed stare of dim recognition. Perhaps she witnessed some of the many small atrocities of the Revolution...the vandalism, the beatings. The day was something no one who experienced it would ever forget.

The Widow Clicquot
The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
. Copyright © by Tilar Mazzeo. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents


Ch. 1 Child of the Revolution, Child of the Champagne 1 Ch. 2 Wedding Vows and Family Secrets 11 Ch. 3 Champagne Dreams 24 Ch. 4 Anonymity in Their Blood 36 Ch. 5 Crafting the Cuvee 49 Ch. 6 The Champagne Widow 60 Ch. 7 Partner and Apprentice 70 Ch. 8 Alone at the Brink of Ruin 84 Ch. 9 War and the Widow's Triumph 100 Ch. 10 A Comet over Russia: The Vintage of 1811 113 Ch. 11 The Industrialist's Daughter 121 Ch. 12 The Wine Aristocrats 130 Ch. 13 Flirting with Disaster 143 Ch. 14 The Champagne Empire 155 Ch. 15 La Grande Dame 166 Ch. 16 The Queen of Reims 178 Afterword 187 Notes 195 Selected Bibliography 239 Index 257
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2009

    The Widow Clicquot - Corked

    Ms. Mazzeo started her quest to reconstruct the life of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot with a well intentioned zeal, and clear desire to extol the virtues of a businesswomen before the term had even been coined. Her initial premise was flawed in that Madame Clicquot, by her own admission, was like most businesswomen of the Napoleonic Era in that she stepped into the role as the result of a death of the patriarch either their fathers or husbands, in this case her young, fragile husband. Rather than take up the reins on her own she immediately embraced male business partners and professional sales and managerial staff to whom she delegated many of the major duties of running a wine wholesale business and ultimately a full production estate winery. While Clicquot¿s accomplishments were many, as were her failures, they were not done by her alone as the precursor of the modern female entrepreneur. To expect this of a young widow in the mid 1800s was simply too much to hope for and an unfair imposition of our modern constructs; fighting against fact to prove so is unfair to Clicquot as it distracts from her authentic accomplishments.<BR/><BR/>The narrative is forced by Ms. Mazzeo with insufficient historical material leaving a story filled with awkward conjecture. Perhaps because of a lack of foresight in keeping the papers of the Widow Clicquot or simply because running a business and raising a family left precious little time for diaries and social correspondence there is precious little in the way of personal details beyond sales records and a few impersonal letters to her chief salesman during his travels.<BR/><BR/>What does come through from the facts and figures is that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was a brave and adventurous woman. The daughter of a wealthy textile merchant who married another Reims elite, another son of a textile merchant and wine distributor, she was destined for a comfortable provincial life until the Napoleonic Wars and the premature death of her husband interfered. Her aggressive expansion into Russia, running blockades, and out innovating her competitors showed a brilliant mind and an appetite for risk.<BR/><BR/>Bits of wine wisdom peppered throughout the book were not enough to propel the story along but included such interesting party knowledge as name for the wine cages (muselet) and the metal cork cap (capsulets) both invented by Adolphe Jacquesson in the 1840s. The fact that Dr. Jules Guyot ¿invented¿ the practice of growing grapes in rows to increase evenness in ripeness, prior to the widespread use of this practice they were grown in round clusters for support. And perhaps most interestingly and relevant that the widow Clicquot invented the riddling racks out of her kitchen table as a way to speed the disgorgement process whereby the yeast is cleared out of the wine and removed from the bottle. She was also on the forefront of our modern conception of branding by being among the first to use a signature color in sealing her bottles, adding labels, and marketing prestigious vintages.<BR/><BR/>While this book makes marginal gains in Champagne scholarship and will be a useful reference for future authors it fails in its primary task of informing and entertaining the reader.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Insufficient Bubbles

    I love the champagne and thought I would enjoy the book. The author, however, was plagued by lack of primary sources creating a book that does little to flesh out her subject. What's left is a thin social history describing the role of women in nineteenth century France and an explanation of the difficulties of exporting a luxury product during the Napoleonic Wars.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2009

    This Champagne is Flat!

    The publisher and author should be chastised for allowing the WORK OF FICTION to be classified as a Biography. The author waits until the end of the book to confirm what this reader presumed all along -- that in the absence of any good factual information on the life of the Widow, she chose to surmise or make up the Widow's character. She crafted the widow as she hoped she might have been. The text is littered with 'must have's and 'no doubt's and 'surely's. The historical factual material that is present in the book relates not to the Widow but to the times in which she lived. At best, this is a "tale". Readers who want to learn about the Widow Clicquot would be better served by investing in a bottle of her bubbly than in this tale cloaked in in biographical clothing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 21, 2011

    A Colossal Disappointment!!!!

    My book club just finished reading this book and felt that the amount of actual FACTUAL material about Barbe-Nicole could be summarized in a chapter (versus the supposition that is liberally used throughout the book because there are no facts). If supposition were the only recourse, this book would better have been written as a novel on the order of Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran. Significantly pared down, this book would make a great article in a good wine or food magazine...again, just sticking to the facts.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A bubbling story of one amazing woman.

    After reading The Billionaire's Vinegar, I was unsure about how this book would read. However, my love of Champagene and history won out and I bought the book. I am glad that I did. The author did a great job making a flowing story from the great amount of history that makes up the story of The Widow. This book does not read like a bestseller, but if you enjoy a story about someone who can pull themselves out of the ashes, and make great things happen, then be sure to pick this book up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2011

    If you love history, this will fascinate you.

    Mazzeo writes a story that includes the backdrop of the French revolution, a history of champagne making, and how unusual it was for a woman to take control of a family's side business when she was widowed in her 20's. The story moves along quickly, and you'll only slow down your reading because you'll Google the pronunciation of French words or want to know where these villages are on a map. A fascinating non-fiction read and you'll learn so much about the making of champagne.

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  • Posted November 14, 2009

    Could not put it down!!!

    Loved the book, besides learning about the story of Madame Clicquot, you get a great scoop about champagne making and a great description of the historical facts of the time, war, diseases, culture, relationships, protocol, etc.
    Will enjoy my next bottle of "THE WIDOW" differently next time.
    Cant' wait for the next Tilar Mazzeo book.

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  • Posted October 3, 2009

    Personal Conjecture Derails Book Value

    This seemed like it would be an interesting book, however the author's interjections of her own thoughts,feelings and guesses while reflecting on the subject detracted from the story and blurred the historical facts. I would not recommend to any of my friends.

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  • Posted May 18, 2009

    I'll drink to that!

    This was an interesting book for wine lovers and history buffs. The writer must have had to do voluminous research as so little, as regards women and businesses, was saved. Madame Cliquot was unusual in that she
    ran a business and appeared in a brief time period when it was permissable for females to do so. The appeal of champagne which we tend to think of as a French connection was spread to England and Russia by the upperclasses, particularly royalty. To be the official wine of the king carries the same cache that we think of a manufacturer sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth and it was a profitable relationship for those who had that connection. The upheaval in France between freeman and royalty was also touched upon in this book. A great gift for a wine lover, even if they prefer varieties other than champagne!

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    Posted December 13, 2009

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    Posted March 3, 2009

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    Posted January 3, 2010

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    Posted June 5, 2010

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    Posted October 20, 2010

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    Posted July 27, 2011

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    Posted December 27, 2009

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    Posted January 5, 2010

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    Posted April 6, 2009

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    Posted December 28, 2009

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    Posted January 6, 2010

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