La Bonne Vieille Veuve Clicquot: History of Champagne’s Great Widow
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin: a brief history of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne and its maker, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin.
Note: in late 2012, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was battling a hoax on the Internet involving the promotional sale of six bottles of Veuve Clicquot. “This is a hoax, beyond our control,” the company announced on its website.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is one of the world’s finer champagnes, the product of a winery founded by Phillipe Clicquot in 1772 in Reims. The champagne as we know it today is actually the progeny of Philippe Clicquot-Muiron’s wife and widow (Veuve is French for widow), the rotund Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who, on Philippe’s death in 1805, possibly from suicide–business was slow–took over the winery when she was 27 and, as a single mother, not only turned it into the successful and noble enterprise it’s been since, but played a key role in transforming champagne from the cloudy product of fermentation it had been until that time into, eventually, the clear bubbly we know today. In short, she was the mother of the méthode champenoise.
As of late 2009, the Veuve Clicquot imprint–which includes Moët & Chandon, Dom-Pérignon, Mercier, Veuve-Clicquot, Ruinart, Krug and Montaudon–annually shipped 16 million bottles worldwide.
The celebrated yellow-gold Veuve Clicquot label is characterized by an anchor in the middle of a star, with the star symbolizing a comet representing the Great Comet of 1811, which crossed the skies of Champagne and, as lore has it, produced an excellent vintage the following year. In 1814, Barbe-Nicole smuggled some 10,000 bottles of her “Vin de la Comete” to Tsarist Russia, where it was considered “the king of wines.”
Barbe-Nicole’s success is remarkable given the early 19th century’s oppressive, Napoleonic expectations of women, which were indistinguishable from today’s regressive, patriarchal societies that expect their mothers to stay home, rear children and keep quiet. None of that for La Grande Dame. “The world,” she wrote a great-grandchild in the 1860s, “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.” In 2008, Collins/HarperCollins published Tilar Mazzeo’s biography of Barbe-Nicole, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.
“Some say,” Mazzeo writes about Barbe-Nicole, “that she is the first woman inj history to run an international commercial empire at all. Certainly, she was the first woman–and to this day, one of only a few–to lead one of the world’s great champagne houses. Entering the commercial world just as the first rumblings of the International Revolution were reshaping life in nineteenth-century France, she brought the value of the family business-woman to the age of manufacturing. Barbe-Nicole was not just an extraordinary woman, she was an extraordinary entrepreneur. In fact, in this era of the great industrialists, Barbe-Nicole was one of the robber-barons. By the 1870s, champagne was on its way to becoming the legal monopoly that it remains today, controlled largely by this new breed of wine aristocrat. Barbe-Nicole not only was among them, she had helped to create the phenomenon–one that would make it all but impossible in the twentieth century for enterprising young upstarts like herself to make new fortunes in champagne. By limiting where the grapes could be grown and how they could be harvested, by controlling who could use the word and at what price, the great houses at the end of the nineteenth century–and the men who increasingly ran them–had established an elegant and exclusive cartel.”
In 1972, the company established the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award as a tribute to Madame Clicquot. (The prize is a silver trophy shaped as a La Grande Dame bottle, a special vintage produced from the vineyards exclusively owned by Madame Clicquot during her lifetime.) The award has since come to be regarded as the Oscar of women entrepreneurs and business leaders, witha particular emphasis on social responsibility. In 2009, Natalie Killassy, Founder and Managing Director of South African Company Stitch Wise, was awarded for her innovative creation of mining safety tools to greater protect miners in South Africa, along with the establishment of an empowerment trust where amongst other subjects, literacy, computer skills and basic business skills are taught .
In January 2001, Cecile Bonnefond became only the second woman to head the enterprise as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin SA and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (which bought Veuve Clicquot in 1987).
“Bonnefond,” according to a Daily Telegraph profile, “shares some of her predecessor’s traits – such as determination and invention – but not all. The portrait of the widow in Bonnefond’s office shows a stout, authoritarian figure – an image made almost flesh when a film-maker animated Clicquot’s face for an awards ceremony. Being addressed by a woman who has been dead for more than 150 years was unsettling. Listening to Bonnefond, a stylish French professional who speaks perfect English, proves easier. ‘Passionate,’ is how the 52-year-old lover of antiques and architecture describes herself and her attitude to Veuve. Her latest enthusiasm is for corporate and social responsibility. Often derided as a catch-all phrase, Bonnefond is clear about what CSR entails: caring about the environment, being financially responsible and looking after your workers.”
Bonnefond left Veuve Clicquot in October 2009 to take over Le Bon Marché department store company. She was replaced by Stéphane Baschiera, who joined LVMH in 1996 as sales director for Champagnes & Spiritueux Associés. He was President and CEO of Champagne Ruinart from january 2007 until october 2009 when he became CEO of Champagne Veuve Clicquot.
In 2010, Christian Ekstrom, a Finnish diver, discovered a trove of champagne bottles in a two-masted schooner that sunk some two centuries ago in the Baltic Sea. Some were Jacquesson champagnes, and some were Veuve Clicquot. The name Werle was branded into the bottom of the cork, a reference to Édouard Werle, who took over the winery in 1830, which suggests the champagne was made after 1831. “The Champagne was probably en route to the court of Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg when the wooden cargo vessel sank,” The Times reported. “Though the exact age of the Champagne is not yet known, it goes up against tough competition in the oldest Champagne category. The Champagne house Perrier-Jouët claims that its vintage of 1825 is the oldest recorded Champagne in existence.” Until then, Veuve Clicquot’s oldest drinkable bottle was from 1904. Experts estimated the discovered bottles could fetch $70,000 each at auction, exceeding the previous record of $21,200 for a 1928 Krug, auctioned in 2009 in Hong Kong.