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.