Make no mistake. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin propelled a family wine business from near-death into the international Veuve Clicquot champagne empire through hard work, determination, risk-taking, and marketing savvy. But the universe helped, too. In her new book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, Assistant Professor of English Tilar Mazzeo looks at both the internal practices and the external forces that led to the making of, in her words, “the first modern woman CEO.”
When Clicquot Ponsardin’s husband died in 1805, she was 27, the daughter of an affluent businessman who, like her father-in-law, made his fortune in textiles. The widow had worked with her husband on a small family wine business and, despite the financial risk, set out to transform it. Far beyond succeeding, Clicquot Ponsardin internationalized champagne and, according to Mazzeo, reaped the rewards of marketing and branding before those terms existed. “She creates this brand identification,” said Mazzeo, “this … really iconic status, not only for her champagne but for French champagne more broadly.”
That iconic status is part of what inspired Mazzeo to write the book—and is part of what intrigued reviewers and readers as the book launched to strong national reviews and sales. To Mazzeo, there’s a lot to learn from the icons of an era. Her academic interest is in material culture and commodities⎯ “how clothing, how furniture, how wine, how food, how, you know, the really material substance of the world we all live in, how that shapes literary expression and aesthetic values,” she said. Plus, she really likes champagne.
Mazzeo explores both the life of the widow Clicquot (“veuve” means widow in French) and the history of champagne, framing the widow’s life in historical context; in the process, Mazzeo shows how it was possible for a businesswoman to excel in 19th-century France.
It began before Clicquot Ponsardin entered the game. Her husband was an only son. “If she had had male family members who were able to take over that business, she probably would not have been given that opportunity,” said Mazzeo.
In retrospect, history was also on her side. At the time she took over, it was acceptable for women to work in family businesses. As France’s industrial revolution took hold, the business model shifted from family-run businesses to the use of professional managers. That made it more difficult for women to have a role, Mazzeo said. “I think she was born just at that moment where there was a transition between those two models, and she was lucky that her father was an industrialist, so she knew what the wave of the future was going to be.” Clicquot Ponsardin hired (male) professionals and, by the time she was 40, worked largely behind the scenes.
Another bit of luck: she wasn’t pretty. “If she had been really beautiful, she would not have been given the leeway to not have remarried after Francois’s death,” said Mazzeo. “She just wasn't a beautiful woman, and so the idea that she was going to do something besides be a wife, I think, was a possibility for her.”
But in 1814 Clicquot Ponsardin’s business was struggling. She had laid off all her employees and was desperate. Enter the Russian troops in the Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon’s abdication, they took over. They wanted to celebrate, and they just happened to be in Reims, the Champagne region’s major city. Soldiers from around the world popped corks and developed a taste for this local sparking wine. That, in turn, sparked an idea⎯and a major gamble for Clicquot Ponsardin.