By Philiappa Campsie

Champagne, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

Two hundred years ago or so, for many women, the fast track to business independence—or indeed, any kind of independence—seems to have been widowhood. They didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it turned out.

First you had to get married and out from under your own family’s control. As an unmarried woman, you were essentially like a piece of delicate porcelain that had to be kept free of defects and polished to a sheen in order to be passed on to its next owner—your husband. But once married, you were no longer a china doll and you had a bit more say in how your life unfolded—from how you dressed to where you went and who you saw.

As a married woman, you usually ran your own household and controlled at least some of the family’s finances. And if there was a family business, sometimes you could get involved to some extent. If you kept your eyes and ears open, you might pick up some tips about running a business. And then, depending on the circumstances and your husband’s health, it might be up to you to keep it going.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot

This is what happened to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, née Ponsardin, better known as the Veuve (Widow) Clicquot. It also happened to Louise Pommery, Lily Bollinger, Mathilde Laurent-Perrier, and a few others, but Barbe-Nicole is the best known of the widows who ran businesses in the champagne industry.

She was born in 1777 in Reims, the centre of champagne country. She was still at school when the Revolution broke out in 1789, and during her teenaged years, this period of enormous upheaval changed French society. Similarly, if you were a teenager during the 1960s, you would have experienced something similar in the sexual revolution and the youthquake—a period when the old, stuffy order was thrown out and new ways of life seemed possible… although in the 1960s, when people lost their heads, it was not literally.

There are other parallels. For example, just as denim jeans became de rigueur in the 1960s, white muslin gowns were the egalitarian dress of choice for citoyennes (women citizens) during the Revolution—a democratic item of attire available to all. So Barbe-Nicole wore a white muslin dress for her 1798 wedding to François Clicquot, which took place in a cellar. Why a cellar? Her family wanted a Catholic celebration, and during the Revolution, Catholicism had been outlawed, so the religious ceremony had to be kept hush-hush.

François’s family owned vineyards, and the young couple’s wedding gifts included both money and land that could be used for wine growing. When he entered the wine trade, he had to spend quite a lot of time travelling to sell the family wines, which meant that Barbe-Nicole had to oversee what was happening on the lands they owned.

Clicquot: Creating and selling sparkling wine

In the early years of the new century, François was seized with the idea of bottling the wines that came from his family’s lands, instead of just putting the wine in barrels and selling it in bulk. Bottles are an essential part of creating and selling sparkling wine. Without the glass bottle to hold in the bubbles, champagne is just…flat white wine.

In retrospect, it seems like a great idea. At the time–not so much. The market for sparkling wine was limited, and besides, the entire continent was still convulsed with war–with England, with Russia. Foreign sales were dismal. And finding bottles strong enough to contain the bubbly without exploding was a challenge.

Then in autumn 1805, François died. Barbe-Nicole, aged 27, was left with a struggling business and a daughter to raise. She could have retired gracefully into obscurity and signed over everything to her in-laws. Had she done so, she would have been provided for during her lifetime. Many women at that time would have taken that route.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot: Spirit of an entrepreneur

Barbe-Nicole turned out to have the spirit of an entrepreneur. She decided to take over the business. To do so, she had to overcome the misgivings of her family and the growing trend in the early 19th century to relegate women to the role of wives and mothers.

Turned out she was not just an entrepreneur, but a born innovator. She dealt with the question of bottling and experimented with the techniques of making sparkling wine. She found a way to produce something that not only tasted pleasant, but looked good in the glass. Despite wars and political unrest, she sent her salesmen to Great Britain and Russia and they returned with huge orders that not only boosted her business, but also expanded the entire market for bubbly wine.

For the next forty or so years, the Veuve Clicquot worked hard and took risks, even facing the spectre of bankruptcy to ensure the success of her business empire. She knew better than to remarry, which might have led to her losing control of the business.

Before she died in 1866, she wrote to her great-granddaughter Anne, “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others. Be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”

One hundred and fifty years later, women entrepreneurs still need to act with audacity. We raise our champagne glasses to a woman who blazed a trail–the trail we all blaze, each day, as we manage our businesses. To the Veuve Clicquot!

Serving champagne. Which glass to use – coupe, flûte or tulipe?

According to Deborah Lee Johnson of Paris for a While, champagne can be served in one of three types of glasses. The one you see in 1950s movies is the shallow coupe, which was developed in the 18th century for serving dessert wine. It has fallen out of favour because it makes the bubbles dissipate too quickly. The next one is the tall narrow flûte, which allows the bubbles to collect at the bottom and rise up in a single column. Finally, there is the tulipe. The bottom half is like a flute, but instead of continuing to widen towards the top, the sides of the glass narrow again to hold in the flavour of the wine. (The profile of the glass is like a diamond with the top cut off.)


The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman who Ruled It by Tilar Mazzeo. (Hardcover – 2008) 

Tilar Mazzeo pieces together the story and the personality of the Veuve Clicquot, in spite of the fact that documents written by 19th-century women were seldom preserved. Highly recommended. HarperCollins Publishers.

Tutorial on Champagne

By Mireille Guiliano. Mireille Guilianoformer CEO of Clicquot Inc. and author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, offers a little tutorial on champagne on her website: click here.

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Champagne: Sparkling wine produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France.
Coupe: Shallow stemware glass for serving champagne which was developed in the 18th century for serving dessert wine.
Flûte: Tall narrow stemware glass for serving champagne which allows the bubbles to collect at the bottom of the glass and rise up in a single column.
Tulipe: Stemware glass for serving champagne, considered the best. The bottom half is like a flute, but instead of continuing to widen towards the top, the sides of the glass narrow again to hold in the flavour of the wine. (The profile of the glass is like a diamond with the top cut off.)

Philippa CampsiePhilippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy. 

She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Apéritif: Cocktails in Paris by Barbara Redmond who writes about the sublime experience of cocktails at six-thirty or seven o’clock in Paris and the journey into a slower paced world of genteel manners and day-to-evening transformations. Cocktails: Fashions from the 1930s to the 1960s—Chanel’s “Little Black Dress” and Dior’s “The New Look.” Including a recipe for the French aperitif “French Kiss” by Pernod. 

Indulge at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who shares how to achieve a bit of luxury at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris for afternoon tea or evening cocktails, when “constraint” is a word more in vogue than “indulgence.” 

Cooking schools in Paris founded by women, by Barbara Redmond who writes about extraordinary women who cook: from Anne Willan, Marthe Distel, and Elisabeth Brassart, to “Les trios gourmands,” Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. Including a directory of cooking schools in Paris.

French White Wines: Sauternes, by Barbara Redmond together with Jo-Ann Ross, French Wine Scholar and Certified Specialist of Wine, who share their conversation about which French white wines to pair with foie gras during lunch at a café outside of Boston. Including Jo-Ann’s French white wine selections for French Sauternes Wines: expensive, less expensive, and something different. 

French Women Chefs: les mères lyonnaise, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the stories of former house cooks of affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed such well-known people as General de Gaulle as a VIP at their table. 

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.