Book details rise of Veuve Clicquot empire

If you like champagne, "The Widow Clicquot" by Tilar J. Mazzeo is definitely worth a drink.

Mazzeo's book details the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, who took control of her late husband's wine business and turned it into a worldwide empire known for its orange-labeled bottles of champagne called Veuve Clicquot, French for the Widow Clicquot.

Mazzeo writes that her interest in Clicquot began during one Midwestern winter when she was drowning her sorrows over a career that was going nowhere. In the aisles of a discount warehouse store she found a small card slipped in a box of Veuve Clicquot describing the story of the woman who made the champagne a worldwide phenomenon, and Mazzeo eventually became obsessed with discovering her story.

From the descriptions Mazzeo mentions of traveling around France and drinking copious amounts of champagne in the name of "research," it seems that writing a book about champagne isn't such a bad way to spend one's time.

Clicquot was born to the Ponsardin family, a wealthy, socially prominent family in Reims, France, and, like the vast majority of women of her age and social stature, she was raised to marry well and have children. That she did, marrying Francois Clicquot in 1798 whose family was involved in the textile and wine trades, and giving birth to one daughter. But unlike many women of her stature, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot took an active interest in her husband's wine business. The two were constantly in the fields, checking their vineyards, tasting the wine, overseeing the first crush of the grapes and agonizing over the business together.

But when her husband died in 1805 - it is believed from typhoid although there were rumors he committed suicide out of despondency over his business - her path diverged from the typical French woman of her time.

Working out a deal with her father-in-law, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot arranged to run the champagne empire herself, a decision that Mazzeo describes as being "out of step with the tenor of her times." But it was a job that Barbe-Nicole Clicquot eventually excelled at, albeit after some years of near financial ruin.

In what Mazzeo describes as her "greatest gamble of her career" Barbe-Nicole Clicquot decides to send some of her finest wines - including wine from the 1811 vintage that Mazzeo describes as one of the two greatest vintages of the century - to Russia in 1814 even though the blockade set up during the war with Napoleon still hadn't been lifted.

A step that could easily have ruined her if the shipment was caught and confiscated, instead lands her wine in Russia weeks before any of her competitors and proves to be the crossroads of her business life that propels her company to greatness.

One of the challenges with writing a book about a person from so long ago is finding enough information - not just about the actions or deeds that made the person famous, but about their feelings and motivations. As a result, the book seems a bit dry at times. Mazzeo takes some liberties with Clicquot's story, such as hypothesizing about how she would have felt fleeing the French Revolution in a carriage as a young girl or the joy she felt at pulling off the daring shipment to Russia.

In the end, although Mazzeo does an admirable job of trying to flush out the woman behind the legend, you still find yourself wondering what type of woman Clicquot was to lead such a groundbreaking life.

One of the strengths of Mazzeo's book is how she captures the combination of hope and devastation that seems to exemplify life in the wine industry while Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was in business.

"The Widow Clicquot" also highlights the precariousness of life during the French Revolution and the many years of war that Europe experienced under Napoleon. Shipments could get stuck in port for months due to the blockade. Marauding soldiers could loot a fortune from the cellars. Bottles of wine could explode in hot weather.

Ultimately, what makes Barbe-Nicole Clicquot's story so interesting and what Mazzeo does such a good job of relaying is the winemaker's ability to weather these risks and take the type of chances that elevate her from being simply a good businesswoman to creating a business that is flourishing even today.

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