Friday, January 25, 2013

When a Widow Gets the Party Started

It seems every party has at least one mysterious couple. You know, that handsome '007 who passes up refills of the house wine, treating his own drink as if it's liquid gold. His willowy guest, of course, shares his champagne flute. Her long dress sweeps the room like a decorative train for a private ceremony they're about to hold in the corner. He feeds her finger-food. She begins to rub his back. The flustered host points insistently to a bedroom, but the pair simply walk out the front door, the sun bouncing off a champagne bottle in the woman's purse. Everyone in the room is aghast. Dialogue becomes stilted and many guests complain of thirst. And then, it dawns on you. The couple was drinking Veuve ("Widow") Cliquot, otherwise known as the champagne that made bubbly famous.

What strikes me as most interesting about the rise of Veuve Cliquot is that a 19th-century woman was behind it. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married Francois Cliquot and when he died of typhoid fever–for which champagne was, ironically, a popular antidote–she was left at the young age of 27 to operate a business alone. Never mind that the embers of the French Revolution were still settling: the Widow went whole hog. In fact, after Napoleon's reign came to an end, she arranged for boats to push through a naval blockade in what was then Prussia to ensure that Cliquot was drunk by as many celebrating soldiers as possible. Whereas the American Revolutionary Tea Partiers said, "No taxation without representation," the Widow may have said, "No toasting the end of terror without the real deal, and that's from my winery." When Cliquot reached St. Petersburg in 1811, Czar Alexander gave it a ringing endorsement. And so grew the Widow's empire.

With the numerous male-dominated vineyards in nearby wine country, it's refreshing to learn that a woman actually got things started for bubbly. What we hear is that the only authentic champagne comes from those sacred grapes in France and that Dom Perignon created the drink. But, as the Widow reported, bubbly was actually stumbled upon. When many winemakers were trying to get their product to stop fizzing, the British were drinking still wine with Bourbon, the precursor to the sparkling kind. Nobody invented champagne. It was a glorious accident. 

Not only was Barbe-Nicole a fearless businesswoman, she had excellent advice for her granddaughter: Be bold and let intelligence direct your life, she said. 

Indeed. And though I have a night of writing ahead of me, and I wait tables tomorrow morning, a large bottle of bubbly smiles down on me from my bookshelf. I've had it for six months now. What's another few weeks? Mardi Gras is around the corner, and no one will be sober enough to notice that what we're drinking isn't the Widow. Except me.

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