By Carolyn Patricia Grisold
In 1798 at the age of 21, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married FranÃ§ois Clicquot, heir to a struggling business that spread across wool, banking, and Champagne production. Just six years later, her husband passed away from typhoid fever, leaving the 27-year-old veuve (French for ‘widow’) in control of the family business.
During the Napoleonic period of that time, widows had more freedom than generally allotted to women as a whole, yet it was still groundbreaking for la grande dame to achieve what she did. She was truly one of the first contemporary businesswomen, and her success was remarkable for how she not only furthered the House of Clicquot by narrowing its focus down to Champagne production — but through her innovation, changed the sparkling wine industry itself.
In 1816 Mme. Clicquot developed, along with her cellar master Antoine de MÃ¼ller, a new bottling technique called “riddling.” She did this by cutting holes in an old table through which the Champagne bottles would rest and be turned on a regular basis to gather dead yeast in the neck, which could then be released. Before she stepped in, traditional production resulted in a very sweet tasting wine. La Maison Clicquot is said to be the first “modern” Champagne producer, and its veuve is considered a pioneer in the industry today.
Not much is known about the Grande Dame’s personal life but in a letter to one of her great-grandchildren she is said to have written, “You more than anyone resemble me, you who have such audacity. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life… to dare things before others!”
With any entrepreneur, foresight and risk-taking are just as important as any other business acumen. La veuve Clicquot not only changed the course of an industry through innovation, but also through marketing. She established the beverage at royal courts throughout Europe, overcoming a continental embargo and in 1814 shipped 10,550 bottles of Champagne to Russia. The brand’s iconic yellow label was trademarked in 1877, and remains a distinctive, highly-recognizable feature.
In 1972, to celebrate the winery’s bicentenary, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin launched a vintage Champagne named, but of course, La Grande Dame. Also in that year, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award was created, in tribute to its entrepreneurial madam. This award champions the success of women in business who exhibit the traits for which la veuve was know: an enterprising spirit, courage and the determination to accomplish her aims. International in scope, this award is given in 27 countries; its 2012 recipient in Canada was Christiane Germain, past speaker at les Midis-conférences Femmes d’influence de Deloitte in Montréal and co-president of Groupe Germain, responsible for HÃ´tel Le Germain’s unique product experience and operations.
Since 1987, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin has been part of the Louis Vuitton MoÃ«t Hennessy (LVMH) group of luxury brands. Although Mme. Clicquot died July 29th 1866 in Boursault, France, through the success of la Maison Clicquot and its Business Woman Award, her legacy as an entrepreneur continues to sparkle.