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Break out the bubbly

October 26, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg | Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy at and the host of

The Widow Clicquot

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

Tilar J. Mazzeo

Collins: 266 pp., $25.95


Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in Reims, France, in 1777. She was plain, yet her merchant father married her to the wealthy young Francois Clicquot, a man of her class. With ample support, Francois and his wife took over his family's languishing wine business. They hired a brilliant salesman, Louis Bohne, who persuaded Russians that they should buy Clicquot. Still the couple struggled, set back by wars (which got in the way of commerce) and weather (which was alternately too hot for stored wine and too wet for growing grapes). When Francois died in 1805 -- records say from typhoid -- rumors circulated that it had been a suicide.

Tilar J. Mazzeo shows how the ebb and flow of French politics offered, briefly, an opportunity for women like Barbe-Nicole to go into business. Her family helped finance Veuve ("widow," in French) Clicquot but insisted she take on an older, male partner. The partnership grew, fitfully. The wine -- Champagne -- needed a second fermentation to give it fizz, but the extra sugar often made it unacceptably gunky and cloudy. Bottles exploded. And Europe was still at war.

But war became an opportunity. Her partnership concluded, Barbe-Nicole defied export laws, making sure her Champagne would be the first into Russia after the Napoleonic Wars. Bohne sent back giddy word: Veuve Clicquot was a phenomenal success.

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. But when Mazzeo strives to imagine her interior life, the book falls flat. There are no diaries and few personal notes to help. Despite the author's best efforts, Barbe-Nicole remains an enigma, one who will remain best known by her product, Veuve Clicquot.

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