The Queen of Champagne

You won’t find her name on this list of 16 legendary women entrepreneurs , but she does rate a reference of sorts in the Oxford English Dictionary under the entry for the word widow: “the widow: champagne. From ‘Veuve Clicquot’, the name of a firm of wine merchants.” Except, of course, Veuve Clicquot is more than the name of a firm; it is, in fact, the name of the woman who built a small family wine brokerage business into an international empire.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin was born in the Champagne region of France in 1777. Although she and her husband François shared a passion for winemaking, Barbe-Nicole wasn’t involved in the business. A woman’s place was, after all, in the home in the eighteenth century. François, who fancied himself quite the entrepreneur, focused on the local product known as vin mousseaux or sparkling wine. For a brief period during the reigns of Louis XIV and his great-grandson Louis XV, the bubbly beverage had literally been the drink of kings. But by the time Barbe-Nicole’s husband decided to expand production and distribution, vin mousseaux was little more than an “extravagant curiosity, known only at the courts of Europe,” according Tilar Mazzeo’s book The Widow Clicquot.

When François died suddenly in 1804, the small venture funded by his father was struggling. Twenty-seven-year-old Barbe-Nicole, a widow and young mother with no business training, found herself at the helm of a shaky wine brokerage firm. She was not poor, a point in her favor, and since her husband had been an only child, there were no brothers to step in—another point in her favor. She was also intelligent and assertive, characteristics that must have been obvious to her father-in-law, because he agreed to keep backing the business.

Initially Barbe-Nicole’s timing proved to be as terrible as her husband’s. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, much of Europe was blockaded. The British and the Russians were by far the biggest consumers of champagne, but ships from France could reach neither. Cash flow became a serious problem—at one point Barbe-Nicole sold most of her jewelry to raise operating funds—yet she refused to give up. She not only continued to produce and bottle sparkling wine, she revolutionized the entire process when she perfected the technique known as remuage.

One of the biggest headaches in producing champagne was the painstaking process of removing the brown sediment that was the byproduct of secondary fermentation. Determined to find a solution to the problem, Barbe-Nicole had her kitchen table hauled down to the cellars and riddled with slanting holes just large enough to accommodate the necks of the bottles. Day after day she went down and gently turned and tapped the bottles, encouraging the sediment to settle in the necks. After six weeks, the corks popped out and so did the sediment, allowing Barbe-Nicole to accelerate production. It took decades for her competitors to figure out her secret; her fiercest rival, Jean-Rémy Moët, didn’t adopt remuage until 1932.

As the fortunes of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin continued to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, it became clear that time was not on Napoleon’s side. Desperate to get bottles to market in Russia, Barbe-Nicole hatched a daring plan. As soon as active hostilities ceased—even if the blockade remained in place—she would load a ship with champagne and run the blockade to a Russian port. If her plan succeeded, she’d be months ahead of her competition and flush with cash. If the ship was seized or sunk, it would ruin the company.

You can probably guess the outcome, given the fact that bottles of bubbly bearing the Widow’s name (veuve is the French word for widow) and distinctive signature enjoy prominence on store shelves and wine lists of fine restaurants the world over. The first ship that reached Russia stoked its citizens’ long denied thirst for champagne. When Barbe-Nicole ran the blockade a second time, a near riot occurred as the ship was unloaded.

These two shipments, writes Tilar Mazzeo, made Barbe-Nicole “one of the most famous women in Europe and her wine one of the most highly prized commodities of the nineteenth century.” Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin also became one of the wealthiest women in the world. By the time she retired from day-to-day oversight of the company at age 64, it’s estimated she was worth in excess of $10 billion in today’s economy. She remained active and engaged in the firm bearing her name until she died at 89 in 1866.

A bit more: If you’re a champagne lover you’ve undoubtedly heard about Dom Pérignon, the Catholic monk who “discovered” how to put bubbles into wine. In fact, as Tilar Mazzeo states in her book, Dom Pérignon was tasked with getting rid of the bubbles that were “ruining the local wines.” The story about his invention of champagne was itself an invention. Concocted in the late nineteenth century, the account was eventually registered by the estates of Moët and Chandon as a trademark.

“Champagne,” according to Madame Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, “is the only wine that leaves a woman more beautiful after drinking it.” I’m a big fan of champagne, so I like to think that’s true. I also believe that there are countless occasions, great and small, that should be celebrated with a glass of bubbly. Next time you raise a glass, salute La Grande Dame, the Widow Clicquot for her role in making the champagne industry what it is today.