One summer while I was in college, I realized I wasn't making enough money with my temp job in an office, so I took a second job working nights and weekends for a catering company. They did off-premise catering, meaning that we brought everything to a person's home (or considering the area they worked in, estate), or party space, etc. One of the very first parties I worked at was at the, well, estate of one of the wealthiest families in a very exclusive town. The poolhouse was as big as the homes of some people I knew. The event was a fundraiser for some charity the family supported and it ran late. After the guests left, I trudged around busing the tables, picking up glasses and empty bottles. Then I noticed the woman of the house walking across the terrace where I was clearning up. She stopped and picked up one of the half-empty bottles of champagne that were scattered around the tables, and poured the remainder into a glass. She saw me watching, and smiled and said, "Never waste good Veuve Clicquot," then walked back into the house.
This made a serious impression on me. It seemed like a very sophisticated thing to say--just being able to pronounce a champagne's name certainly said something about a person's upbringing and social status. I vowed from then on that if I ever had anything to celebrate, I would make sure Veuve Clicquot was served, and I would absolutely make sure it was never wasted.
Of course I didn't know anything about Veuve Clicquot (or even champagne), including that the "veuve" in the title meant "widow" and that the champagne's history included an actual Widow Clicquot, who helped turn a small winemaking business at the beginning of the 19th century into one of the more revered names in the business. I learned this, and more, after reading Tilar Mazzeo's The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
Add "Veuve Clicquot" yellow to your arsenal of color descriptions.
Actually, not a lot is known about Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. We know she was the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer who has aspirations to nobility, but had a knack for quickly switching to the right side to keep his family alive during the upheaval of the Revolution and the Napoleonic years. Barbe-Nicole was married off at twenty to the son of another textile titan who had a small sideline in winemaking. Barbe-Nicole's new husband was more interested in that than cloth, and became determined to jump into the then just growing market for champagne.
Winemaking is a tough business at any time, beholden as it is to the weather, but the constant wars between France and various European nations during those years made it difficult for anyone to get their product out; at any time a successful order could be destroyed as a new embargo trapped a cargo ship in a port. While the business was still struggling to get started, Francois, Barbe-Nicole's husband died, leaving her a widow at twenty-seven, with a young daughter. Rather than get out of the business, retire to her family's support, or look for another husband, though, Barbe-Nicole, who had picked up a passion for wine and champagne from her husband, managed to persuade her family to help her find a partner to help support the business while she tried to keep it going.
The business continued to have a hard time getting a foothold, especially while France was at war with Britain, but the Widow Clicquot hung in there (even after the partner quietly dropped out) and eventually timing was on her side. Britain opened up to French wines and champagnes again right when Clicquot had an especially good vintage ready to go. That lucky break, along with her insistence on consistently producing exceptionally clear wines, paid off and the brand became a star overnight. Clicquot continued to work hard and remained personally involved in the business into her 80s. She was lucky enough (again, timing) to come along at a time when the small, family run cottage industry was dying, and the new large scale industrial way of doing business--which excluded women--had not fully taken hold. Clicquot was smart enough to hire the right people to help her keep the business strong and who knew how to make the brand adapt to changing tastes while still maintaining its quality.
And that's pretty much it.
I honestly don't know what to say about this book. Here's what I mean--there is actually very little concrete information about Barbe-Nicole Clicquot. There aren't many letters written by her, biographical material written by others is sparse, and there are few other primary source accounts. The result is that much of Mazzeo's book is speculation about Clicquot based on her research of the time period, the business records of the Clicquot company, and her own knowledge of wine and champagne. That means that almost all of Barbe-Nicole's personal story is guesswork, and it's really, really frustrating. If I were playing a drinking game based on knocking back a shot every time the word "Perhaps" is used in this book, I'd be on the floor by the end of the first chapter; throw in "maybe" and I'd be dead. There is so much guesswork and loose ends here, that I didn't know what to make of Clicquot. What was real and what was not? The worst part is that material that Mazzeo had treated as guesswork or speculation in one chapter then gets treated as fact later. In an early chapter of the book, while writing about the way that the young Barbe-Nicole had escaped from her convent school back to her family's home during the Revolution (there are letters saying that a family dressmaker went to the convent, dressed the girl in peasant clothes, and got her through the mob that way), Mazzeo imagines a scene where the frightened girl looks out the window of the dressmaker's small apartment and watches the scene below of an angry crowd parading through the streets. Later, though, when Clicquot's own daughter had to make a similar escape during troubled times, Mazzeo writes that the daughter "looked down on the same scene as her mother had years before" (or something to that effect, I had to return the book). What had earlier been plainly described as a possibile scenario is later described with the assuredness of fact. It's a little thing, but it bothered me.
Much more troubling was the overall tone of the book with its endless "maybe...perhaps...seems...likely." It really wore me down after a while, but it also raised a difficult question. Should I be annoyed at Mazzeo or should I admire her for taking on such an impossible project and doing her best with it? She obviously cares deeply about her subject, and you can tell that Mazzeo honestly feels it's important to make sure Barbe-Nicole Clicquot's story is told. That's admirable, and I want to admire her for the work she did, but in the end, I just remember how annoyed I was while reading the majority of this book. There were plenty of times where I felt that if so much of the book had to be speculation and "perhaps," then maybe it wasn't worth it.
That's not to say the book is without value--in fact, there are a lot of enjoyable, interesting parts to it. Mazzeo explains the history of champagne and debunks the story of the Swiss monk Dom Perignon accidentally stumbling on the bubble-filled wine and crying out that it was like "drinking the stars!" Actually, he spent most of his time trying to figure out how to get the bubbles out of the wine. And for all its French pedigree, champagne really rose to prominence in Britain first. The most interesting fact about champagne (at least to me) is that originally it was much, much sweeter--while today's champagne has at most 20 grams of sugar, the 18th-early 19th century product had as much as 250 grams! I have a serious sweet tooth, but that might have been too much even for me.
Mazzeo's knowledge and love of wine comes through in these parts of the book, and that's where she is at her best (there are, by the way, some painfully clunky sentences in here, but I'm going to blame the editor for those; they really should have been caught). That made me wonder if Mazzeo might have been better off writing a history of the time period and the rise of champagne from a misbehaving wine to a product that has become synonymous with celebration. While I understand her desire to put the Widow Clicquot's story front and center, maybe I would have had more tolerance of all the maybes and perhaps...es if they were part of a larger story, rather than the sole focus of the book (more about the rivalry between Clicquot and Moet-Chandon, for example, would have been welcome). If Mazzeo wrote another book about the history of wine or the industry, I'd certainly be open to reading it--and I'm not even much of a drinker.
But if I was going to drink, I imagine I'd have some Veuve Clicquot--and would most certainly make sure it didn't go to waste.