An Effervescent Biography

 

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Tilar MazzeoEnglish Professor Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot, with a portrait of the widow, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin.

Champagne had not been legal in Russia for years. “She recognizes that if she can get this wine back to Russia,” said Mazzeo, “there is this international market that already is positively predisposed to her champagne.” Defying export laws, she sent the champagne on a journey with her salesman, Louis Bohne. “She makes that last desperate gamble to run the blockades and get ten-thousand bottles of her very best champagne into Russia.”

After much anxiety, the bottles were the first to arrive in Russia after the ban. “Within weeks she’s famous throughout Europe and has made her fortune and really doesn't look back after that," said Mazzeo. “I think if the Napoleonic Wars hadn’t ended in the Champagne, champagne might not have become the product that it now is.”

Of course there’s far more to it than that, and Clicquot Ponsardin’s business sense is ultimately the reason for the company’s ascent. She took champagne, once a celebratory drink for only the aristocracy, to the middle classes by expediting the process of eliminating yeast, thereby cutting the price.

Hers was one of the first wines to bear a label⎯a way of assuring her customers that this champagne came from her cellars. In a letter to Bohne, she wrote, “I understand that name recognition is everything,” according to Mazzeo.

She brought in experts from the outside. “She was also one of the people who really led the way in that managerial revolution,” said Mazzeo, “moving companies away from family holdings to having CEOs and CFOs and also to developing marketing departments.”

Her hard work and perfectionist nature are evident in the Veuve Clicquot archive in France, where Mazzeo spent day after day poring over papers for insight. “She kept meticulous records⎯every piece of land she ever bought, all the contracts, every bottle of wine she sold, who she sold it to, all of that is there,” she said. Lacking, though, are glimpses into her private life. “It was a very interesting thing, about what she thought was important in her own life to hang onto.”

Mazzeo also spent time learning about how champagne is made and what it’s like to be a woman winemaker today. And, of course, tasting. “Onerous research, I assure you," she said.


More information is at www.tilar-mazzeo.com

To listen to an interview with Mazzeo on Minnesota Public Radio, click here.

 
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Comments

  • On September 26, 2009, Ibrahim A. El-Hussari wrote:
    In her brilliant biography book, The Widow Clicquot , Professor Mazzeo chronicles the rise of the first pioneer, feminist woman ever in a transitional France and beyond during the Napoleonic Wars in which only macho fighters would fill the arena and make history. The beauty of the unbeautiful widow lies in her futuristic vision of a dauntless woman whose business adventure in producing and marketing French wine has cut through layers of obscure and fossilized traditions that were until that time too immune to break. Against the romantic, Napoleonic hero of the time, the widow Clicquot scores an advance and wins as a realistic figure whose role in shaping the history of France, even in wine business, has ushered in a considerable change in sex roles.