Friday, December 31, 2010

The Story of the Widow Clicquot

It's no secret that I adore champagne, and my favorite by far is Veuve Clicquot, (Although I won't say no to Laurent-Perrier Rose or Billecart-Salmon, or basically any sparkling wine!) but I never really thought about the story behind the yellow label until I was on a panel with Christine Kaculis, the US Director of Communications for Veuve Clicquot, last week at The Mistletoe Syndrome event at The National Arts Club.  Listening to Christine talk about the brand and how it got started made me eager to learn more.  Fortunately there is a short biography about Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot written by Tilar J. Mazzeo which I eagerly took out of the library. Her story is inspiring, a woman who took over her husband's business when the idea of an upper middle class woman entering into business was unheard of. With tonight being New Year's Eve, and all those corks of Veuve Clicquot being popped, I thought it would be nice to have a look at the woman who probably did more than anyone to promote Champagne to the International market.

If it weren't for two events, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin's life would have been very different.  The first event was the French Revolution which kicked off in 1789 when Barbe-Nicole was 12 (she was born on December 16, 1777 two years after Jane Austen).  Barbe-Nicole's father Nicolas was a prosperous textile merchant who had ambitions to vault his family from the upper middle class into the nobility.  He'd already gotten a start by being voted onto the city council and being part of the committee that planned for the coronation ceremony for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the cathedral town of Reims where the Ponsardins lived. His dreams of either gaining a coat of arms for his family or marrying his two daughters into the nobility (Barbe-Nicole had a younger sister Clementine) were shattered when the Revolution came.  But Nicolas was a shrewd man, he just switched sides and became a fervant proponent of the Revolution going so far as to join the Jacobins.

Barbe-Nicole, who had been attending the royal convent of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames (Mary, Queen of Scots had once been a pupil), had to be rescued by the family dressmaker, and smuggled home dressed like a peasant, before the chanting, angry mob that was roaming the streets of Reims came to its doorstep, making it a target of public abuse.  The second event that changed her life was her marriage to Francois Clicquot when she was 20.  Like her, he came from a wealthy family who had made their money in textiles but they also had a side business as wine brokers.  Francois had ambitions to take that side business and turn into something more, not just distributing other people's wines but making their own.  He decided to concentrate on the sparkling wine that for a time had made the region famous.  Champagne had its heyday in the late 17th and the early part of the 17th century, during the reign of Lous XV, whose mistress, Madame Pompadour adored the wine, but it had fallen out of favor over the years.

Barbe-Nicole worked by his side, absorbing everything that she could about the business. At first, they concentrated on both white wines as well as champagne. After a brief initial success, the war took its toll on the business. Although Francois had hired an agent, Louis Bohne, to help sell the wine, shipping it was difficult. When they went to England to hopefully sell the champagne, they discovered that since they had no contacts amongst the aristocracy, they had little hope of making a dent in the market against the likes of Jean-Remy Moet. Discouraged and depressed, Francois died in 1805, officially from typhoid but there were rumors of suicide. Barbe-Nicole was left a widow, with a young daughter at the age of 27.

Instead of retreating into respectable widowhood, or even eventually remarrying, Barbe-Nicole decided to continue the business on her own.  Although there were women vintners most of them were lower-class, this would be new territory.  Barbe-Nicole was fortunate that her father-in-law was willing to put money into the venture, at first to the tune of 30,000 francs, but he insisted that she work together with a more experienced vintner for four years.  Showing the initiative and ambition that would see her father rise to become mayor of Reims and a close friend of Napoleon, Barbe-Nicole agreed.

Barbe-Nicole decided to focus solely on champagne.  The champagne they drank back then was different from what we drink today. For one thing, it was much sweeter, as much as 250 to 300 grams of sugar was added to the wine.  Since I failed the metric system, I'm not sure how much that is, but it sounds darn sweet. Nor was champagne the rich golden color that we associate with it. According to Tilar Mazzeo's book, champagne back then was a pinkish gray color which doesn't remotely sound appetizing. Champagne and wine in general wasn't normally even bottled. Most wine was sent abroad in casks. Bottling was expensive and shipping the bottles without them breaking was a nightmare. The first four years, she was in business were rocky, but her father-in-law believed in her, and when the apprenticeship was over, he put more money into the venture.

Barbe-Nicole's biggest market at the time turned out to be Russia, where the Imperial Court loved her champagne, and began to ask for it by name, which also a first. When Reims was taken over by the Russian army, Barbe-Nicole took advantage of it, and served her champagne to the officers. When the French recaptured Reims, she gave the officers champagne. As soon as the war was over, Barbe-Nicole managed to arrange a ship to get her wine to Russia,sending 10,500 bottles of champagne. But it was the champagne that was bottled during the year that there was a major comet in 1811, that made her reputation. It was also her idea to have the bright yellow labels on teh bottles.

Madam Clicquot today is recognized with three achievements, internationalizing the champagne market, brand identification, and developing the process of the riddling rack that made the process of what they call degorgement possible. She developed this technique with her cellar master Antoine Muller. What this does is allow the sendimentary gunk that builds up after the secondary fermentation to be removed. The rack allows a bottle of wine to be stuck upside down, an assistant every day would gntly ske and twist the bottle to encourage the gunk to settle to the bottom. When this was complete, the cork would be gently removed and the gunk ejected (thanks Wikipedia for explaining this so efficiently!). Now the wine was less cloudy, and the bubbles were smaller. Now she could accelerate production and kep her share of the marketplace. It would be years before her biggest competitor Jean-Remy Moet discovered her secret and adopted her technique. By the 1820's, she was exporting 175,000 bottles of champagne a year.

By the time Barbe-Nicole passed away in 1866 at the age of 89, she was known as the 'Grande Dame of Champagne." Ironically for a woman who had been an idependent business woman for more than half of her life, Barbe-Nicole wanted her daughter to marry well (she married the Comte de Chevigne) and live a more conventional life. Only one other woman in the 19th century also helped to run a champagne house and that was Louise Pommery who changed the way the world drank champagne when she started selling a the style that the world now knows as brut champagne. Barbe-Nicole made other innovations as well, instead of turning Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin into a family business, bringing her son-in-law who turned out to be a wastrel and a gambler, into the business, Barbe-Nicole instead took on a business partner, a young German named Edouard Werle. At the age of 64, she finally retired, but she still kept her hand in the company that bore her name. At the time of her death, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was one of the top sellers of chmpagne. Today her legacy lives on in the award for female owners or managers of corporations that was launched in her name in 1972.


Malena of Royal Women said...

This was a very interesting read! I am really happy that her father-in-law believed in her, a woman.

dave hambidge said...

Before we get too far, what about "I was on a panel with Christine Kaculis, the US Director of Communications for Veuve Clicquot" Fame! Did you enjoy the event? Photographs?

I assume this was it?

Well done our Elizabeth, (bow, scrape and grovel) on such high profile "outing".

As for Barbe-Nichol and her libation; it's too sweet for my palete which was long ago killed by British Bitter Beer, but she lived long and well.

May we all do the same in 2011.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Dave and Malena, Happy New Year! Yes, Dave that was the event that I was on the panel for. I'm trying to get the photographs from one of the photographers to post here and on the Scandalous Woman page on Facebook.

Aimee Burton said...

Loved learning about this. I am not a sparkling wine fan (prefer my white wines) but perhaps that is because I've never had a real champagne!