I’ve had one glass of Veuve Clicquot in my life. By moving to Brooklyn, my friends and I have sacrificed being able to afford $50 bottles of champagne for the sake of paying rent on time, so we usually end up with sparkling wine instead. That’s fine, I like the bubbles. That didn’t stop me from recognizing the familiar yellow label on the cover of Tilar Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot and deciding that I just had to find out the history of the woman who started the company. So I did.
Mazzeo explains at the outset that primary source material from the Veuve herself is not widely available: libraries and historians just didn’t see the importance of maintaining biographical details about women in the 1700’s unless they were royalty (or infamous, I suppose). Details about her early and later life are fuzzy, and even her time as one of the foremost women in Champagne isn’t documented very well. Mazzeo takes this opportunity to study the historical context and garner what information she can from the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin archives to fill in the blanks.
The result is a text littered with “perhaps”, “must have” and “probably”s, but it doesn’t take away from the story. When Mazzeo writes about the uncertainty that Barbe-Nicole Clicquot felt in the face of young widowhood, it feels genuine, even if there isn’t a direct quote to support it. Clicquot is a person that you can empathize with. As a modern woman determined to make my own destiny in a world where equal pay is still a hard-fought battle, she’s also easy to relate to even if her particular brand of risk-taking is not.
I’ve read a fair amount of books about the history of wine, the methods of production and the unique dilemmas faced by winemakers from early history through phylloxera, and The Widow Clicquot is not the book to go to if you’re looking for these technical details. It touches upon them only as they relate to Barbe-Nicole, particularly her method of “riddling” to accelerate the process of second fermentation (it all comes back to those bubbles!). Instead, the book attempts to put together the puzzle of a person that most only know from a portrait or a short story in the box their champagne came in.
As a biography, it’s a success. It’s also a well-written history of a company that has risen to international recognition to the point where 18th-century novelists used “a glass of Widow” as short-hand that could only mean Clicquot, and 21st-century brands still clamor to collaborate. And if it doesn’t make you want to sit on your deck, er, fire escape and sip on a glass of champagne, then I don’t know what will.
All those pertinent details:
- Title: The Widow Clicquot, The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
- Author: Tilar Mazzeo
- Length: 264 pages (paperback, including endnotes)
- Genre: Nonfiction, history, biography
- Rating: 4 stars out of 5