More than two hundred years ago in Napoleonic France, the business world was walled off to women, and champagne was a luxury reserved for the ruling class. So then how did a young widow take over her husband’s struggling wine business and turn champagne into an international phenomenon? And how does her legacy continue to shape what we drink today?
Produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman.
Tilar Mazzeo is the author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
- How Barbe-Nicole Clicquot outsmarted the French patriarchy to bring Veuve Clicquot to the masses and create an international sensation
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: I love champagne. Always have.
When I was a teenager, I worked at a restaurant where there were a lot of wedding receptions and I got to be a pro at opening bottle after bottle of champagne (and I’m still available for bar mitzvahs and retirement parties).
A few years ago, I got serious about studying wine and in the process, I got to know a lot more about sparkling wine — how it’s made, what makes it different from other wines. And that included learning about this one woman who forever changed champagne, and part of her story begins back in 1814.
So try and imagine it: there’s a ship that’s just left the coast of France with more than 10,000 bottles of champagne on board. The goal is to get to Russia and sell the wine, but it’s a risky journey. First of all, it’s June and it’s getting hot. If the rocking of the ship does not destroy the wine, the heat likely will. It will be a miracle if the champagne survives the month-long journey.
There’s another reason the trip is precarious: it’s illegal. This is the era of the Napoleonic Wars, when France was fighting with what seems like every country in Europe. As a result, there are blockades to prevent trade with France. If the ship is stopped and inspected, the thousands of bottles of champagne could be confiscated and destroyed.
Meanwhile, back in France, there’s a young widow in a small town east of Paris anxiously waiting to hear any news about the ship. It’s her champagne on board and she’s decided to risk her business on this Hail Mary pass. If her plan fails, that’s it, she’s out of business. If it succeeds, she could make a name for herself across all of Europe.
She is Widow Clicquot. You know her champagne, Veuve Clicquot.
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
Veuve Clicquot is one of the world’s best-known champagnes, but before it became a brand, it was a real person: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot.
She was an ambitious, daring woman who took enormous risks at a time when women like her were not supposed to be running a business at all. And her legacy inspires women in the wine industry to this day…even if she might have rejected being upheld as a role model.
If you have raised a glass of champagne at a wedding, a birthday or a graduation, you have Veuve Clicquot to thank. But do you know her story?
Stay with us.
CH: The reason why Widow Clicquot put it all on the line to get her champagne into Russia — and why it mattered — only makes sense if you understand just how remarkable she was. One person responsible for what we know about her is this woman.
TILAR MAZZEO: So my name is Tilar Mazzeo.
CH: Like many of us, Tilar first got to know the name “Veuve Clicquot” as a brand of champagne. In the 1990s, she was in her mid-30s, teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh and, this is going to sound a little cliché, she and her girlfriends would get together every few months and open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot’s “Grand Dame” and then vent about their jobs.
One day, Tilar bought a bottle and noticed a little card attached that, in a few words, described who the Grand Dame was.
TM: And I read it and I thought, ‘oh, that’s an amazing story.’ I thought, ‘oh, well, obviously, “veuve” is widow in French.’ I had never really twigged on that before.
CH: So she decided to do some digging.
TM: And then it became this running joke where every time we had what we called a VC or a Veuve Clicquot night, I would come in and in my dorky professorial way, would give a little lecture about what I had discovered about Veuve Clicquot.
CH: She went on to write an entire book about her: “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.”
TM: The Widow Clicquot was in some ways really the first audacious businesswoman and she lived at a moment where that was not culturally valued.
CH: Do you usually refer to her as Barbe-Nicole or Veuve Clicquot?
TM: Barbe-Nicole would be her first name and I feel like after all of these years I’m a good friend of hers, so I take a liberty and call her Barbe-Nicole. (laughs) Technically, it’s Madame Clicquot.
CH: I think you’re allowed to do that.
TM: Yeah, no as a biographer, there is only two choices. You either fall in love with your characters or you fall in hate with your characters. (laughs) And I mean I absolutely fell in love with Barbe-Nicole as a person.
CH: But researching Barbe-Nicole — if I may, Madame — was easier said than done, because the record of her life in 19th century France had been more or less wiped clean.
TM: She would have considered that erasing the details of her personal life would have been the appropriate thing to do. Women typically burned their letters before their death if they knew that they were ill so that their family wouldn’t have the embarrassment of having to look through their personal correspondence and destroy it for them.
CH: There are only a handful of letters and personal notes that remain, but what she did leave behind were meticulous business records and letters written to her suppliers. And to read them, well, if she were alive today, she’d be that person who is constantly on the phone with customer service disputing every charge on her bill. You know who I’m talking about.
LETTER: I regret to say the merchandise was, to put it bluntly, what I was expecting.
LETTER: One would really think these bottles were made by apprentices and not by master glassblowers.
LETTER: The merchandise must conform exactly to the sample I have sent…or that will decidedly be the end of our partnership.
LETTER: These bottles do not at all meet my expectations.
LETTER: I am obliged to decidedly give up sending for your corks.
CH: So yeah, you did not want to mess with her. But Barbe-Nicole also had a soft side.
TM: Although she was a very, very hardheaded businesswoman, I think she was also kindhearted, and charitable. There was an occasion where a young boy delivered a shipment of bottles that she did not think were of sufficient quality. They were just shoddy construction. And you know, she sees the little boy with the trembling lip and instead of sending him back with the bottles, she decides that she’ll accept the shipment and writes the letter to the boss saying ‘don’t ever do that again.’
CH: Here’s part of that letter:
LETTER: At first we refused the shipment. It was only the tears of your panic-stricken delivery man (or rather the child who was driving the wagon) that convinced us to accept the order.
CH: Barbe-Nicole grew up during the French Revolution, and during those tumultuous years, there had been some advances in women’s rights. But by the time Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, all that was changing.
TM: Well, Napoleon was not one of history’s great feminists, I think, to put it mildly.
CH: Under his Napoleonic Code, men essentially had total control over their wives and daughters. For example, women generally could not file lawsuits or be witnesses in court. They did not have a say over property or finances or even the fate of their children. The Code was written to keep women at home and definitely out of business.
But Barbe-Nicole had a unique position because her husband was learning the ways of the wine business during the early years of their marriage.
TM: Her husband, somewhat unusually, invited his wife to ride in the carriage around the champagne with him. So for them, wine becomes the heart of their love story.
CH: And a few years later, she benefited from essentially a loophole in the Napoleonic Code when her husband got sick and…
TM: He dies, and I think she thinks to herself that in some ways carrying on that wine business and trying to make a success of it is a way of staying loyal to him.
CH: While the Napoleonic Code was still in effect, Barbe-Nicole, as a widow, could get away with taking over and running the struggling wine business. And there were other widows involved in the champagne industry, but they had been grape growers and small-scale winemakers.
TM: So those were working class women who were mostly widowed and were trying to support families on family farms by doing the work that in most cases probably their husbands had done before their death.
CH: Unlike those women, Barbe-Nicole came from a wealthy, prominent family in the Champagne region. And she not only planned to grow grapes and make wine, she wanted to sell that wine all over Europe and make a name for herself.
There was also something else that, kind of disturbingly, worked in her favor.
TM: She was very, very short. She was not a slender woman and she was not beautiful. I mean that’s an important part of her story actually. I mean if she had been beautiful or attractive, if anybody had thought that it was possible for her to make a second strategic marriage, she probably would have been pressured into having done that. So part of it is that the gender stereotypes for the kinds of women who were considered attractive on the “marriage market,” worked perversely to her advantage. Right? Those stereotypes worked to her advantage.
CH: Yeah, they just sound so horribly sexist.
TM: It is horribly sexist, completely. (laughs) There’s no doubt about it
CH: But there was one wrinkle to all of this. Even with the loophole for widows, Barbe-Nicole still needed to get permission from her father-in-law.
TM: And she has no business experience. She has no business running a business in any objective sense. She goes to her father-in-law and she asks him to gamble the equivalent of today about a million bucks on letting her run a business that he thought all along was a bad idea.
CH: Surprisingly, he said yes — though he did add one condition. He would bring in an experienced businessman to run the company with her in a quasi-apprenticeship. He promised that at the end of four years, if Barbe-Nicole had proven herself, she could run the company on her own. And I want you to stop and think about how unlikely this decision would have been at this time for someone like her father-in-law.
TM: When you’re in the presence of a story that doesn’t make sense, it means that you probably have struck at the heart of character, that there had to be something astonishing that her father-in-law saw in her, this kind of determination and just boldness that he thought, ‘well, she shouldn’t be able to do this but I bet she will.’
CH: That boldness, however, was not appreciated by everyone … one man in particular: Jean-Rémy Moët, the maker of the champagne you know today as Moët & Chandon.
TM: Moët, Moët was not a fan of women in business. In that, to be fair to Moët, Moët would not have been unusual in the least.
CH: Moët was almost 20 years older than Barbe-Nicole,and when she took over her husband’s business, he was already well-established. Half the people who grew grapes for him were women and, according to Tilar, Moët had nothing but contempt for women in business. The rivalry between Moët and Barbe-Nicole would span their entire lives as each constantly tried to one up the other one. And Moët? He had several advantages, including one very important connection: Napoleon.
TM: He particularly was a big supporter of Moët. That was one of the things that drove Barbe-Nicole crazy, is that Napoleon and Jean-Rémy Moët were buddies. Napoleon was actively supporting his buddy Moët as a kind of ambassador of French culture.
CH: To beat Moet, Barbe-Nicole needed to take big risks in how she sold her champagne, and in how she made it.
Now at this time, champagne was expensive — that might sound familiar — but the taste? Well, that would be unrecognizable. And it’s really hard to compare it to what we drink today.
CH: What was she making when she started out and what was the drink like?
TM: So think about a really sweet dessert wine that we might get on the market today. It would have been sweeter than that. It was typically cloudy, and it was served ice cold in little tiny glasses. It was like a frozen dessert slushy.
CH: Yum. It was also really hard to make. A major reason why Barbe-Nicole is remembered to this day is because she changed how champagne is produced. To understand what she accomplished, I need to go a little “wine geek” on you.
Making champagne, sparkling wine in general, takes several steps. You’ll hear terms like primary and secondary fermentation. What you need to know is that yeast eats the sugars in grapes and the by-product is alcohol and carbon dioxide, the bubbles in champagne. If there is too much CO2, and the glass is poorly made, bottles can actually explode from the pressure. In the 18th century, in the warmer months, winemakers could lose up to 90% of their sparkling wine from bottles bursting.
There’s also another problem. At a certain point, the yeast dies and when they do, they leave behind dead yeast that float in the wine and eventually settle to the bottom. I know, that sounds gross. But actually it is really crucial to the flavor of champagne. Trust me here. The issue is, how do you get the cloudy, dead yeast out of the bottle?
When Barbe-Nicole started making champagne the process was called transvasage. What it was, was a pain in the neck. Basically, you would have pour the wine from one bottle to another. It was time-consuming, it led to a lot of wasted wine and generally, was not good for the final product.
For Barbe-Nicole, this was not good enough, so she started experimenting — and in the process, discovered the solution that would revolutionize the industry. It’s called rémuage, or, riddling.
TM: She said, ‘Well, look, what I’d like you to do is take my kitchen table down to the cellars and I want you to drill some holes in it. What if we just turn the bottles upside down so that the yeast is in the neck?’
CH: The idea was that by flipping the bottles and putting the neck in a slanted hole cut into the table, the yeast would eventually accumulate in the neck of the bottle instead of the bottom. You could then pop off the top and the yeast would shoot out, and then just as quickly, you’d put a new cork in the bottle.
TM: You have to have a really, really fast thumb. In that millisecond that it takes for you to put your thumb on the top of it and stop the wine spurting out, the yeast plug has now gone into whatever vat you’re catching it in. And now you have removed the yeast from your bottle.
CH: Sounds logical. But the rest of her team was not sold on the idea.
TM: Everybody looked at her and said, ‘That’s a crazy idea. That will never work.’ She said, ‘I don’t care. Take my kitchen table down into the cellar and drill holes in it.’
CH: She was right. It worked.
TM: So you got clearer wine because it works better. The quality of the wine is not compromised in the way that it was with transvasage. And perhaps more importantly, it is a lot faster. You can move product out of your cellar a lot more quickly and it’s less labor intensive.
CH: It did not just make Barbe-Nicole’s life easier, it meant more quality champagne could be produced more efficiently. It meant that what had been a luxury product could be made in larger quantities to sell to more people. And by inventing riddling, she now had an advantage over her archrival Moët. It would take him years before he would copy her in his cellars.
TM: This is one of my favorite stories about the Widow Clicquot. She says to her employees, ‘Guys, shh, don’t tell Moët.’ It’s like, ‘seriously.’
CH: ‘Seriously, we got a breakthrough here.’
TM: Right, ‘we got a breakthrough here.’ I always think that it’s an amazing testimony to what she must have been like as a person, that her employees keep it a secret from Moët in a small wine region for a decade. And Moët is going crazy. There are some letters that he writes and he’s like, ‘what is she doing? I don’t understand.’
LETTER: We must wrack our brains to obtain as good a result.
TM: He’s pulling out his hair, trying to figure out what it is that she is doing that is allowing her to get this clear wine so much faster than him.
CH: Clear wine. It’s a woman. I can’t imagine that he was very happy.
TM: (laughs) I’m sure she took immense pleasure in the fact that it took a decade for him to figure out what she was doing, bet she wasn’t too pleased with the employee who finally let it spilled the beans either.
CH: But Barbe-Nicole could not triumph over Moët with this innovation alone. She also had to sell more champagne than he did. And when she started out, Moët and his family had already dominated the champagne market for years, especially in Russia where the elites relished the sweet, slushy drink.
TM: To some extent, and certainly for Moët, the sparkling wine market was the Russian market. The Russian court were huge drinkers of champagne.
CH: If Barbe-Nicole wanted to come out on top, she would have to find a way to get her champagne into Russia and topple Moët.
After the break, the race to Russia.
CH: We’re back with the story of the woman behind the name Veuve Clicquot.
Barbe-Nicole had entered the champagne industry at a particularly tough moment.
TM: So, the Napoleonic Wars were not a great time to be a winemaker or a wine exporter in particular.
CH: The market for champagne within France was small, so to succeed in the business, you had to get your wine out of the country. But since the Napoleonic Wars had started in 1803, this was easier said than done.
TM: In order to try to contain Napoleon, who obviously had imperial ambitions and wanted to take over all of Europe, the other European states decided that they would have to try to hurt France economically by putting in a series of blockades of French economic products.
CH: That included champagne. Barbe Nicole tried to find ways to ship her wine, despite the blockades. In one instance, she managed to get some as far as Amsterdam, then a French port city. From there, she planned to send it on to other European countries.
TM: So when it gets to Amsterdam, she has her salesman, who’s there. He’s writing her letters back. He writes her back and says, you know, ‘We made it.’
CH: But before she even had the chance to celebrate, devastating news hit: the British had blockaded Amsterdam. Her wine was stuck there, sitting in a warehouse, decaying in the summer heat. At the end of the summer, her salesman went to check on the condition of the wine and wrote to her:
LETTER: I prayed to the Good Lord to let me find our wines in such a way that I could send you good news, but my prayers were not at all answered. I opened the first case with trembling hands…I took out a bottle, trembling I removed the straw and tissue paper, but rather than the clear and brilliant wine that I had hoped for, I saw nothing but a deposit like a finger that I could not detach without shaking the bottle for a full minute.
CH: Yeah, that “deposit like a finger?” Basically it’s bacteria that left a ropey by-product similar to egg whites. I do not see the royal courts of Europe paying for that. Only a handful of bottles could be saved. So as the Napoleonic Wars continued, Barbe-Nicole’s business, which was still very new, suffered. She may have been French, but Napoleon? She called him, the devil.
TM: Napoleon’s war was ruining her business. I mean, that was why she couldn’t export it and why troops kept coming in and trying to raid her cellars each time. So she was not a fan of Napoleon, although her family were quite politically powerful and involved. And they certainly hosted Napoleon. But privately, she was not a fan.
CH: All this to say, Barbe-Nicole knew that to succeed, she would need to take some risks, especially if she wanted to get her wine to the one market that really mattered, Russia. But Russia came to her first.
By 1814, Russian troops were literally in Barbe-Nicole’s backyard fighting Napoleon’s army.
TM: The Champagne region, was this battleground. Right.
CH: Literally, the battleground between Napoleon and the rest of Europe.
TM: Exactly. They were fighting the war right there. And so what would happen is, one day, the Russians would come in, and they’d conquered the town, and they’d want to celebrate by drinking the local wine. And then the next week, Prussians would take over. And then they wanted to celebrate. Then Napoleon would come back through. Each time they were fighting over, these towns got taken back and forth, back and forth. Each time, the conquering army wanted to celebrate by drinking wine. They were really worried about their wine getting stolen. There were stories about caves being blocked up to hide the wine. And Barbe-Nicole was pretty sanguine about it. She said, ‘You know what…’
CLICQUOT QUOTE: Today they drink, tomorrow they will pay.
TM: ‘The people who drink my wine today will be my market tomorrow.’ That was really the moment that champagne becomes a worldwide phenomenon in that sense.
CH: In the middle of all these wars?
TM: Yeah. Because there are all of these foreign troops there who learn to love the local sparkling wine as they’re celebrating.
CH: And they did just that when Napoleon abdicated his throne in April 1814 and the fighting came to an end.
TM: They have a big party.
CH: The tsar planned a banquet for 300,000 Russian troops to toast their victory.
TM: And they have a lot of champagne. But of course, the brand of French champagne that is widely celebrated in Russia at that moment is Moët. And so that is what they choose to celebrate with.
CH: Barbe-Nicole would have understandably been disappointed. That is a lot of bottles of champagne. And after months of invasions and years of depressed sales from the wars, she was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Desperate, she settled on her plan to win over the Russians…and along the way, beat Moët.
TM: She knew that Jean-Rémy Moët had sewn up market share in the Russian market and she wanted to take some of that share from him is what she wanted. She knew that sooner or later, the Russian market would be open again. She decides to make the biggest gamble of her business career.
CH: To run the blockade. Once Napoleon abdicated, Barbe-Nicole furiously began looking for a ship that could take thousands of bottles of her best wine to Russia. And remember, even with Napoleon gone, the blockades had not been lifted. If the boat carrying her wine was stopped, it was likely her champagne would be confiscated and destroyed.
TM: You have to imagine that the navies of all of these different world powers are patrolling, right, looking for contraband. If I were somebody patrolling looking for contraband, there’s nothing I’d like to confiscate more than a shipment of vintage French champagne.
CH: There was another factor to consider — would her wine survive the sea voyage? Barbe-Nicole was sending the best of the best: her 1811 vintage. And vintage champagnes are only produced a few times a decade — they use grapes from one extraordinary good harvest, rather than blending from different years, which is the common practice. As a result, there are fewer bottles of vintage champagne, and that makes them unique, and means they sell for prices higher than your typical champagne. Barbe-Nicole was jeopardizing her very best wine. Even if it survived enemy confiscation, the weather might actually do her in.
TM: She’s sending it too late in the season. And it would have been hot. So there’s also the risk that if the wine gets hot, you’re going to have cooked wine and it’s going to be ruined.
CH: She did not want a repeat of those “deposits like a finger” that ruined her wine in Amsterdam. But if she wanted to save the business, this was her only chance. On top of that, Russia was still banning the importation of French wine.
TM: She’d already been at the brink of bankruptcy before. Her father-in-law would not have supported this going on any longer. It was the end of the road. She was gambling absolutely everything on this shipment.
CH: And the expectation that Russia would lift the ban. Her idea? Ship the wine to Konigsberg in what was then Prussia.
TM: It’s a port that is the closest to Russia. What she wants is to have her product positioned so that the moment peace is declared and the wine can get across the border into Russia, where she knows there is this large pent-up market, she is there and she wants to be there weeks before any of her competitors. And in particular, weeks before Moët.
CH: The entire operation required subtlety and secrecy, because we’re talking about smuggling out 10,000 bottles of champagne from the center of France, to the coast and then onto a ship.
TM: You have to ask yourself how she and her employees managed to carry it down to a barge secretly right in the middle of town without Moët finding out.
CH: Somehow they did it and Barbe-Nicole got her trusted salesman, Louis Bohne, to lead the trip.
TM: She sends him with bottles of brandy and a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
CH: (laughs) Tilting at windmills.
TM: The knight fighting impossible battles. Exactly.
CH: The journey from France to Konigsberg took nearly a month, and it was a month of rough waters, and vermin infestations, and increasing heat. But the ship managed to avoid confiscation and pulled into port on July 3, 1814.
TM: And when they arrived, Louis Bohne checks the quality of the wine and he writes her a letter back and he says, ‘You won’t believe it. The wine is perfect.’
LETTER: As strong as the wines of Hungary, as yellow as gold, and as sweet as nectar.
I am adored here because my wines are adorable…what a spectacle.
CH: It was clear, after years of war, these Prussians had been thirsty for champagne. Bohne became the most popular guy in town.
TM: And Louis Bohne is just ecstatic. He says, you know, ‘I don’t think we’re even going to be able to get the wine to St. Petersburg. I have people lined up outside the boat here.’
LETTER: Two-thirds of the high society of Konigsberg are at your feet as a result of your nectar. Of all the fine wines that have teased northern heads, none compare to Madame Clicquot’s 1811 cuvée.
TM: And he says ‘but don’t worry I’ve doubled the price.’ [laughter]
CH: Barbe-Nicole could not contain herself in her reply.
LETTER: Great God! What a price! How novel! I am over the top with joy and satisfaction. What overwhelming happiness this change will pay out. The heavens have showered me with blessings, after all the terrible moments I have passed. I owe you a thousand and thousand thanks.
CH: Louis Bohne says like everybody here wants the wine, I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to have any to go into Russia. Does any make it into Russia?
TM: Yes. Their final goal, of course, is capturing share of the Russian market. So he does hold back some. He does get it into St. Petersburg. It’s almost astonishing to believe. She goes from being unknown in the business world to a month later everybody knowing in Europe who Madame Clicquot is, the Widow Clicquot is. It’s not just that this is a success and her business begins to grow steadily. It’s that she gets into the market and suddenly her champagne is the in thing and she becomes an absolute phenomenon such that if you asked for a bottle of the Widow, everybody understood that you meant champagne. And that was because of the Widow Clicquot.
CH: Barbe-Nicole not only saved her business, she made a name for herself across the continent. Combine that success with “riddling” — her invention that produced better quality champagne and is still used to this day — she would go on to inspire women in the wine business for generations to come. Even if she might have given that legacy the side-eye.
That’s after the break.
CH: We are back, with the story of Veuve Clicquot and the women who followed her.
Arriving first in Russia after the fall of Napoleon saved Barbe-Nicole’s champagne business. But if she had gone bankrupt, she wouldn’t have been out on the street. Once again, Tilar Mazzeo:
TM: You know, it’s not that she would have gone hungry. She was a very wealthy woman, she could have packed it in and closed the business and gone lived in her château and done embroidery. But that would have been the end of any idea that she was going to be a businesswoman and have this independent life.
CH: So, yes, it helped that she had a financial cushion. But the fact that she was willing to risk her independence and her business, to bet the farm — or the winery — says a lot about her.
CH: Why do you think she did?
TM: I think that goes back to that story of character. She shouldn’t have. But whatever her father-in-law saw in her that led him to believe that a young woman in her late 20s with no experience could build a business, you know, was about the character behind her. I think she was a force of nature as a person. It’s not a story of a marketing success. It’s a story of a really high quality product made by somebody who was a very determined and risk-taking entrepreneur. She is the first woman to head what we would think of as a commercial empire.
CH: And she did this when she was in her 30s. She would go on to live another 50 years. Over her long life, her business had its ups and downs — at times, she even made some decisions that put the company in jeopardy. But by the end of her life, she succeeded in selling champagne to more people, while at the same time, keeping its image of extravagance. Like an early, mass market, luxury item.
TM: I think she’s probably the biggest single reason that champagne today is something that you and I could go home and drink even though we are not members of royal courts of Europe.
CH: Because of these accomplishments, other residents in the Champagne region knew her and her story. In fact, tourists would come and visit the “Grand Dame” where they might meet her and tour the winery, taste her champagne. Maybe even visit the wine cave. Barbe-Nicole was an example for the next generation of wine-making widows.
TM: After Barbe-Nicole, who really was the path breaker, we have Louise Pommery, who had gone to boarding school in Britain who thought that the British would buy more sparkling wine if it were less sweet.
CH: Widow Pommery turned champagne from the sweet, dessert slushy Barbe-Nicole sold into the dry or “brut” champagne we know today. And I personally want to thank you, Madame Pommery.
TM: Barbe-Nicole didn’t think that Brut Champagne would sell. Barbe-Nicole always considered that one of her big mistakes as a businesswoman. She had the grace to admit that Louise Pommery was correct. So now, when we see that yellow label of the non-vintage brut Veuve Clicquot, that is the label that was invented late in her life when Barbe-Nicole accepted that Louise Pommery was right, and that you did need to make a brut Champagne for the British market. But Louise Pommery absolutely, I think, saw herself as a kind of second generation champagne widow.
CH: Future generations included another widow, Lilly Bollinger, who would take over and run her family’s business in the 20th century.
TM: One of the things about champagne is that although there are certainly very famous champagne houses run by men, champagne in the wine industry has been a place where women have had outsized roles, right? Bigger roles than they’ve had in other parts of the wine world. You don’t have the same kinds of stories in Burgundy or in Bordeaux. So in some ways, I think because of Barbe-Nicole, women winemakers and the story of women in the Champagne is a really important part of that story.
CH: And her legacy continues into the 21st century. Now Widow Clicquot inspires women in an industry, where in the US for example, they only hold about a quarter of leadership positions.
JEN PELKA: What’s interesting is that there are a lot of young women who are in positions of power in wine bars that are really focused on champagne or champagne bars.
CH: Jen Pelka is one of them. She is the founder of The Riddler, a champagne bar in San Francisco and New York.
JP: All of our investors at The Riddler are women, almost everybody on our leadership team is also a woman, and we have a lot of female sommeliers on the team.
CH: Her business reflects a trend that’s happening in France as well.
JP: If you look at what is happening in Champagne, women more and more powerful and are a huge part of the community, Veuve Clicquot had a female CEO for many years and now Krug, arguably the most important champagne house in terms of ultra luxury, has a woman who is a CEO as well.
CH: Champagne is now a $5.5 billion industry ranging from famous global brands to smaller, boutique bottlings from what are called “grower-producers.” And Veuve Clicquot is one of the founding mothers of the modern industry. She is also, I think it’s fair to say, an honorary founder of Pelka’s champagne bar too.
JP: I first learned about riddling when I was at a wine tasting in New York at the Veuve Clicquot headquarters and was learning all about the history of Veuve Clicquot and learned that the Widow Clicquot invented this practice called riddling and I had a lightbulb moment, I said, ‘one day, I’m going to open a champagne bar called The Riddler.’ And here we are!
CH: Here we are!
JP: I mean I would love to invite the Widow Clicquot to the Riddler. I wish she were still around, I think she’d like it here. (laugh)
CH: All this, however, might have come as a surprise for Barbe-Nicole. While she subverted expectations of what a woman could do outside of the home, in some ways, she was held back by her gender.
TM: She couldn’t travel because she didn’t have a male guardian. So even a widow wouldn’t travel alone because there was no male member of her family to travel with her. She never left France.
CH: And yet her name…
TM: Was known around the world.
CH: Even though she defied expectations and conventional behavior, she was still a woman of her time.
CH: Would you describe her as someone who was championing the rights of women?
TM: That’s a more complicated question. Probably, probably not.
CH: As Barbe-Nicole’s company grew, she brought in professional businessmen to help her run it. She helped usher in a new era of work, one where businesses thought like companies, not families. And that new structure actually shut the door to the untrained women who had been a part of the family businesses in the past.
TM: She certainly didn’t want her own daughter going into business. Part of it is also that she was born in that moment of a kind of counter-cultural revolution and the aftermath of the French Revolution. You know you’re talking about it over the course of a very long life, 90 years or so. And as the century went on, the culture became more conservative in its views of women and not less.
CH: How did the rivalry with Moët end?
TM: (laughs) I don’t know what Barbe-Nicole would feel about this. The rivalry ends by the fact that in the late 20th century, Veuve Clicquot is purchased by LVMH, which is Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which also happens to be the large luxury business that owns Moët.
CH: After years competing against one another, Moët and Clicquot’s champagnes are now owned by the same company, though they are run separately. Moët & Chandon is the world’s largest selling champagne brand. Veuve Clicquot is right behind them . The rivalry lives on.
Barbe-Nicole lived to almost 90 and despite that very long life, as I mentioned earlier, she left behind very few personal letters or notes that give you a sense of her inner life. But there is one letter that survives that she wrote to her great-granddaughter near the end of her life.
LETTER: My dear, I am going to tell you a secret. You more than anyone resemble me, you who have such audacity. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life…to dare things before others…I am called today the Grand Lady of Champagne! Look around you, this chateau, these unfaltering hills, I can be bolder than you realize. The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow.
TM: “One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity. Perhaps you too will be famous…!!” I think she does a good job capturing her own spirit. (laughs) It’s my favorite letter. One of the few where her own voice comes through, and I think the fact that she waited so long to put it into words is probably part of why it’s so succinct and perfect.
CH: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot led a remarkable life. But as the years passed, her story receded into the background and what remained for most people was just a name: “Veuve Clicquot.” Tilar spent years bringing The Widow’s story back to life. And in doing so, she also learned some important lessons for her own.
TM: I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. And I own a winery.
CH: How’s that going?
TM: Well, one must act with audacity, (laughs) and be exacting and unfaltering. Winemaking is a tough business. We got a lot of rain, it was a hard year. But no, it’s an amazing, amazing adventure.
CH: Tilar, thank you so much.
TM: Thank you.
CH: Tilar Mazzeo is the author of the book The Widow Clicquot, The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
CH: This episode was produced by Julia Press with Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie Herman.
Special thanks to William Antonelli, Adam Burakowski, Christian Nguyen, Jessica Orwig, and Betsy Stark.
Also thanks to Jen Pelka and the folks at The Riddler — the champagne was fantastic — and to Isabelle Pierre, the Heritage Manager at Veuve Clicquot Krug. We also want to thank Tilar for letting us borrow her title.
Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music from Audio Network. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. Our editor is Carolyn Dubol. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.
CH: Oh my god this is like a test. (laughs)
JP: It’s not!
CH: I get bread and cream. There’s a little bit of lemon.
JP: Yeah, you’re hired! (laughs)