A toast to The Widow

While reading “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It” by Tilar J. Mazzeo (HarperCollins, 2008) I found out so many things I didn’t know about both my favorite type of wine and its origins. (I know this isn’t a cookbook, but reading it gives one an excuse to pop a cork and sip on the patio.) For one: Originally, bubbles in wine were undesirable and winemakers spent considerable time and trouble getting them out. Another: That story about Dom Perignon shouting “I am drinking stars!” was a legend manufactured in the late 19th century, Mazzeo writes, and eventually trademarked to a champagne company. The 17th-century monk would have wanted to eliminate bubbles from his wines because no one wanted sparkling wines at that time.

As Mazzeo tells the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who took on running the family wine business after the death of her husband after the French Revolution, she also tells the story of champagne. And a story of intrigue and drama it is, complete with secret shipments to forbidden parts of the world. The Widow Clicquot herself, whose wine is still known as Veuve Clicquot, was unique for the time as a daring businesswoman in charge of what eventually became a huge business. Mazzeo says that she may have been the first woman in history to run an international commercial empire. By the time The Widow died in 1866, she was known throughout the wine-making world and one of the richest people in France.

Because personal records are scarce, Mazzeo does a lot of imagining about the inner working of The Widow’s mind, but little of it seems far-fetched. If anything, the writing is occasionally a little too dry. But with such an interesting story, little embellishment is needed.

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