Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Widow Clicquot Reviewed

"I drink it when I am happy, and when I am sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I am alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am not hungry, and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it - unless I am thirsty."
Madame Lilly Bollinger

The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo was on my Christmas wish list this past year; I was excited about this book based on the promising subject matter, but I must preface this review by saying that this book was a major disappointment. Having said this I beg your patience to continue with this review as there were some diamonds among so much uninteresting rock.

Ms. Mazzeo started her quest to reconstruct the life of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot with a well intentioned zeal, and clear desire to extol the virtues of a businesswomen before the term had even been coined. Her initial premise was flawed in that Madame Clicquot, by her own admission, was like most businesswomen of the Napoleonic Era in that she stepped into the role as the result of a death of the patriarch either their fathers or husbands, in this case her young, fragile husband. Rather than take up the reins on her own she immediately embraced male business partners and professional sales and managerial staff to whom she delegated many of the major duties of running a wine wholesale business and ultimately a full production estate winery. While Clicquot’s accomplishments were many, as were her failures, they were not done by her alone as the precursor of the modern female entrepreneur. To expect this of a young widow in the mid 1800s was simply too much to hope for and an unfair imposition of our modern constructs; fighting against fact to prove so is unfair to Clicquot as it distracts from her authentic accomplishments.

The narrative is forced by Ms. Mazzeo with insufficient historical material leaving a story filled with awkward conjecture. Perhaps because of a lack of foresight in keeping the papers of the Widow Clicquot or simply because running a business and raising a family left precious little time for diaries and social correspondence there is precious little in the way of personal details beyond sales records and a few impersonal letters to her chief salesman during his travels.

What does come through from the facts and figures is that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was a brave and adventurous woman. The daughter of a wealthy textile merchant who married another Reims elite, another son of a textile merchant and wine distributor, she was destined for a comfortable provincial life until the Napoleonic Wars and the premature death of her husband interfered. Her aggressive expansion into Russia, running blockades, and out innovating her competitors showed a brilliant mind and an appetite for risk.

Bits of wine wisdom peppered throughout the book were not enough to propel the story along but included such interesting party knowledge as name for the wine cages (muselet) and the metal cork cap (capsulets) both invented by Adolphe Jacquesson in the 1840s. The fact that Dr. Jules Guyot “invented” the practice of growing grapes in rows to increase evenness in ripeness, prior to the widespread use of this practice they were grown in round clusters for support. And perhaps most interestingly and relevant that the widow Clicquot invented the riddling racks out of her kitchen table as a way to speed the disgorgement process whereby the yeast is cleared out of the wine and removed from the bottle. She was also on the forefront of our modern conception of branding by being among the first to use a signature color in sealing her bottles, adding labels, and marketing prestigious vintages.

While this book makes marginal gains in Champagne scholarship and will be a useful reference for future authors it fails in its primary task of informing and entertaining the reader. For this reason I cannot recommend cluttering your nightstand with The Widow Clicquot.

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