Book Review: “The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar Mazzeo

widowclicquotIn spite of our present fascination with Champagne, it should come as little surprise that one of the region’s most legendary figures, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, remains mostly a mystery. After all, the Champagne region itself has been the source of many wine-related myths and mistruths, perhaps none greater than that of Dom Perignon, the monk at Hautvillers whom is often cited as the benevolent inventor of sparkling wine (in reality, Perignon was a gifted blender of still wines, but he considered bubbles to be a major flaw).

In the case of Clicquot Ponsardin, the mystery surrounding the widow’s life stems less from myth than from a simple lack of information. Because the milieu of 19th Century France remained staunchly chauvinistic, very few women appeared in the public record, and quiet anonymity was the social norm for mothers, wives and daughters. As a result, the founder of the Veuve Clicquot empire, despite becoming extremely wealthy in her own lifetime, remains a somewhat shadowy image, much more of a name brand than a national celebrity. Although we do know of the marriages and the deaths that helped to shape Clicquot Ponsardin’s life — as well as many of her shrewd business tactics — the real details of her personal history must be extrapolated.

In her book, “The Widow Clicquot,” author Tilar Mazzeo constructs an admirable biography, drawing careful conclusions between what little we do know and what we can safely assume. Naturally, with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop, the book offers a rich and compelling history lesson (and in truth, most books about the Champagne region benefit from France’s tumultuous past). As a narrative, “The Widow Clicquot” is the culmination of Mazzeo’s diligent and exhaustive research. While it would have been terrific if Clicquot Ponsardin had kept an actual diary, this book provides readers with the next best resource.

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