CLIO TALKS BACK: Taking risks with Veuve Clicquot

Google images; Wikipedia; reproduction of a painting published in 1863
Madame Cliquot and her great-granddaughter Anne de Mortemart-Rochechouart, future Duchesse d'Uzes, painted by Leon Coignet
Here is the story of a audacious woman entrepreneur, who took over the business of her late husband and grew it into an extraordinary financial empire. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin (1777-1866) offers a remarkable example of a business woman who made astute and often risky decisions in the early nineteenth century. She had taken over the family wine business after her husband’s death and had made experiments with production techniques, especially for removing sediment. She was not the type to let someone else run things, and worked closely with her agents and employees. And she took the business from an artisanal manufacture to an industrial level. “She was uniquely positioned to invent a new model,” claims her biographer historian Tilar J. Mazzeo.

The Napoleonic wars were not kind to businesses of any kind (except armaments) and least of all the wine business, which was, then as now, a luxury product. As Napoleon’s defeat loomed, followed by his abdication, Veuve Cliquot began to plot ways of sending a huge shipment of her prize 1811 vintage champagne to Russia by sea. She knew there would be a huge market for it there. Running the naval blockade without proper papers or any kind of official permission was a huge gamble, but she wanted to be first to arrive with the coveted French bubbly and to sell it for extravagant prices (which her agents succeeded in doing) in K√∂nigsberg (now Kaliningrad) and then in St. Petersburg. Wealthy clients fell all over themselves to acquire this effervescent, strong, sweet wine. First she shipped and sold 10,500 bottles, then 12,780. None of her well-packed bottles broke on these extraordinary voyages, which required land as well as sea transport, nor did the champagne spoil enroute, despite the weather. “These two daring shipments,” records Mazzeo, “were to make her one of the most famous women in Europe and her wine one of the most highly prozed commodities of the nineteenth century.” (pp. 117-118). They also made her one of the richest women in Europe.

Other champagne producers also introduced brands labeled “Widow,” but as historian Kolleen Guy remarks, these were “fantasy widows” and not the real thing. Still, there was Veuve Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Pommery to contend with. Not to mention the other champagne producing firms: Moet, Chanton, Mumm, Roederer, and Heidsieck.

The enforcement of separate-spheres ideology in the post-revolutionary period made it more difficult for women to become entrepreneurs, but did not shut them down completely. Widows, who were no longer subject to male control in marriage, had a way of sneaking through.

The Veuve Clicquot had a great-granddaughter, Anne, to whom she wrote: “I am going to tell you a secret. . . . You more than anyone resemble me, you who have such audacity. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life . . . to dare things before others. . . . I am called today the Grand Lady of Champagne! Look around you, this chateau, these unfaltering hills, I can be bolder than you realize. 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. Perhaps you too will be famous. . . !!”

This great-granddaughter, heir to the immense fortune assembled by Veuve Clicquot, married a peer of France, and became the Duchesse d’Uzes. In 1888-89, a widow like her great-grandmother, she bankrolled the campaign (which was ultimately unsuccessful) to restore the Orleans monarchy, and then in the 1890s became an important supporter of the French feminist campaign to restore the property rights of wives.

Suggested further reading:

Kolleen M. Guy, “Drowning Her Sorrows: Widowhood and Entrepreneurship in the Champagne Industry,” Business and Economic History, 26:2 (Winter 1997), 505-514.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Tilar J. Mazzeo, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). The translation of Veuve Clicquot’s letter to her great-granddaughter is by Mazzeo, p. 181.