The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
By Tilar J. Mazzeo
When I walked by this book in the book store, it immediately caught my attention. The cover is the same golden yellow that is now synonymous with what many belive to be the world’s finest champagne: Veuve Clicquot. A book about champagne? What couldn’t be great about that?! Add to that the story of a woman who built the champagne house into one of the most recognized, prestigious luxury brands today and I knew I had to read it.
Opening a new book is very much like opening a bottle of champagne. There has to be the right blend of storylines, or flavors. Does it pop when you open it? Does it have the right balance of bubble and substance? Is it full-bodied, or does it fall flat? Does it tickle your senses or leave you feeling like something is missing? All of these questions come into play when you start a new book.
Mazzeo must have found herself in a bit of a quandary and she worked on the story of the Grande Dame of Champagne. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin is undoubtably an intriguing character. She lived through a tumultuous period in France’s history and, following the death of her husband, took on the wine business they had dreamed of building together. She saw high times, and low times throughout her life and was a monumental force in the highly competitive champagne wine trade. She revolutionized the way champagne was made and sold and was fearless in the face of danger. She made Veuve Clicquot into one of the most respected, prestigious champagne houses in history.
The trouble is, very little of her personal history has been recorded, and Mazzeo is upfront and open about that right from the get go. With that, however, the Widow’s story often takes on a manufactured quality at the author’s hand. I found myself often questioning how much of the story was based in fact, and how much was legend passed down through the years. I think we all expect a certain amount of “filling in the gaps” from authors who don’t have much historical documentation to work from. But it’s starts to feel as though there was almost no information available to Mazzeo and that she was trying to create a story that didn’t exist, without straying from the bits and pieces of information she had.
Information is often repeated throughout the book and tends to lack much of a punch. It is a very short book to begin with, under 200 pages, but it really could’ve have been cut down further. Even through the trials and tribulations of Barbe-Nicole’s life and business, I was left feeling little attachment to a story, a woman, I so wanted to feel a connection to. I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to empathise with what she went through to make her business what it is today. I wanted to feel the anxiety she must have felt as she risked everything to get her champagne through barricades and threatening weather in order to give her company a fighting chance. But somewhere along the way Mazzeo lost sight of the woman, the person, she was writing about. Instead, we are forced to recount needless details, but in no depth, over and over again.
I find myself in another sort of quandary now. I do think there is much inspiration and information to be gleaned from the woman who was the Veuve (widow) Clicquot. And seeing as few have written her story (perhaps because of the issues that ultimately were the undoing of this attempt) I hate to discourage you from picking up this book. So I will say this with a disclaimer: Read The Widow Clicquot, but go into it knowing you will be left wanting more body, and less froth, from the story of the woman who built an empire, much like you would want from a good bottle of champagne.
Cheers, my dears.