A woman who understood how to navigate and seize opportunities during the time of the French Revolution, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin set about transforming a small family business into a global commercial empire. Born in 1777 in Reims, the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer and politician who had played host to Napoleon and Josephine, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin grew up accustomed to wealth and privilege which was not a likely background for the world’s first global CEO.
At age 21 she married Francois Clicquot who, rather than run his father’s successful textile business, focused his efforts on growing his family’s small wine business. The marriage flourished and, together, they learned about and began building the wine business. However, six years into their endeavors, the business was failing and Francois fell ill and died leaving Barbe-Nicole a widow (veuve).
As his only heir, Francois’ father Philippe intended to shut down the wine business until Barbe-Nicole approached her father-in-law about matching the investment of her entire inheritance in the wine business. He agreed to match the investment with the condition that she apprentice with a champagne maker in Reims. After four years of apprenticeship her wine business was still failing and required additional capital. Once again, Philippe provided the funds for Barbe-Nicole to continue operating the wine business.
At the time, the method for producing champagne involved moving the wine (with sugar and yeast) from bottle to bottle to remove the yeast as well as a second fermentation process. The result was a sweet wine that was cloudy from the yeast utilized to create the large bubbles.
Following the Napoleonic war, the widow made a large gamble that the demand for champagne in Russia would be great. Utilizing a significant percentage of her capital she made arrangements to ship her champagne inventory on boats where it waited for peace to be declared before sailing on to Russia. Because of her foresite and courage, Veuve Clicquot was the first champagne to arrive in Russia and upon drinking it, Tsar Alexander declared that the Veuve Clicquot was the only brand of champagne that he would drink. This celebrity endorsement to the Russian court ultimately resulted in international fame and demand for her sparkling wine.
However, the widow Clicquot was not satisfied with her product and she set about to revolutionize champagne’s qualities. She developed the novel technique of riddling in which the wine was placed in a single bottle and placed in racks called pupitres which pointed it towards the floor at a 35 degree angle. Once every two days the bottles were removed, turned, and then placed back in the rack at ever increasingly steep angles allowing more sediment from the yeast to settle into the neck of the bottle. In roughly eight to ten weeks, the bottle would be pointing to the ground concentrating the yeast settlement. After releasing the collected sediment the bottle was topped off and corked resulting in the clear, small bubble champagne that we drink today.
Riddling allowed the widow to mass produce a higher quality champagne more quickly than her competitors enabling the global exportation of her champagne in large quantities. At the time of her death in 1866, Veuve Clicquot was distributed all around the world.
Today, the golden yellow label of Veuve Clicquot champagne continues to be a symbol of a leading luxury brand which would not have existed if Barbe-Nicole had not overcome the odds of a revolution, political upheaval, fierce competition, and gender bias. While on our 21-day trip to France that included barging through champagne we walked the streets of Veuve Clicquot’s home in Reims reflecting on her courageous life.
In the words of Winston Churchill, famous for his love of Pol Roger champagne, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
For additional information on this fascinating woman’s life, check out Tilar J. Mazzeo’s biography, The Widow Clicquot.
Mary Beth I have a passion for creating and experiencing unforgettable moments and sharing those with others. I hope that this story has helped you experience one of those moments.