Ahead of her time and neglected by the history books, Madame Clicquot was an inspired businesswoman whose influence is still felt today
Words: Catherine Gray
The world 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.”
Who do you think said that? Mark Zuckerberg? Arianna Huffington? James Dyson?
The truth is, it could be any one of our favourite contemporary inventors or business leaders, but those words were written in 1866 by an 89-year-old French woman, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, a woman so ahead of her time that her business philosophy still holds true 150 years later.
At school we’re taught about male pioneers like Edison and Branson, but an inspirational one-off like Madame Clicquot, the ‘Grand Dame of Champagne’, has been largely ignored by mainstream history. At the turn of the 19th century, when women were meant to be seen but certainly not heard, Clicquot didn’t just buck the trend, she destroyed it, transforming a failing company into the enormously successful brand that, centuries later, is the world’s second highest selling champagne brand in the world.
“Women such as Madame Clicquot are in danger of being forgotten,” says Helen Pankhurst, feminist commentator and descendent of suffragettes Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst. “This is because of deeply patriarchal attitudes held in the early 1800s and the fact men were largely in charge of writing history. It’s important we rediscover interesting, colourful and audacious women of the past.”
Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born into a moderately wealthy family in Reims in 1777 and her father was a textile industrialist. At 21, in what was then an acceptable business move, she was married to François Clicquot, the son of her father’s rival textile business owner. Despite being all but an arranged marriage, the couple found themselves in a loving, supportive relationship.
Like his new wife, François had a tendency to challenge traditions and instead of learning the ways of the textile industry he decided to grow the family’s small wine business. It was a bold move when the Napoleonic Wars meant there was little interest in fine wines, but Barbe-Nicole’s grandmother had been part of a wine-making operation and passed down her expertise so the Clicquots learnt about the champagne world together. Barbe-Nicole even went to business meetings – an unusual and much frowned-upon move.
“At that time genteel women were expected to read poetry, paint, sew, and at most do some charity work,” says Tilar Mazzeo, historian and author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story Of A Champagne Empire And The Woman Who Ruled It. “It was extraordinarily difficult for a woman to establish herself as a serious businesswoman. Even genteel men rarely worked, so a genteel woman heading up a business was basically unheard of.”
By law in France, women were perceived as no more than the chattels of men. An act in 1791 denied citizenship to women and the ‘Napoleonic code’, in 1804, declared that “the husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband”. Women were banned from buying property and forbidden to travel without a chaperone.
The odds were already against Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, but then six years into her marriage, François died following a fever, though rumour has it he committed suicide due to the stress of their failing business. At the age of 27, widowed with a three-year-old daughter Clementine, Barbe-Nicole was expected to re-marry and the business to be taken over by her new husband. But Clicquot had other ideas. She was determined to make her business a success and petitioned her father-in-law to allow her to build the brand. Perhaps seeing her determination and passion, he agreed.
Her breakthrough came as the Napoleonic Wars raged to their bitter end. Realising Napoleon was about to be defeated and understanding that Russian nobles (early champagne enthusiasts) would want to celebrate the event, she defied the naval blockade on the French coast and smuggled out an illicit barge at the dead of night to take her finest vintage champagne to Amsterdam. Once peace was declared her shipment headed straight to Russia, weeks before her competitors. She sold over 10,000 bottles of champagne for the equivalent of £70 each and saved her business.
Within weeks Russia’s Tsar Alexander I declared that ‘Veuve’ Clicquot, or ‘Widow’ Clicquot, was the only thing he would drink. “She went from a struggling unknown to the darling of royal courts,” says Mazzeo.
Once the champagne reached Europe, Charles Dickens declared it to be “one of the elegant extras in life” and London’s fashion set were all calling for bottles of ‘The Widow’. However, this presented its own challenge – champagne making was a temperamental process and it often took two years to make a single bottle. “The fermentation process meant that champagne was sludgy grey with floaty bits of dead yeast in it,” says Mazzeo. “Pouring the champagne from one bottle to another made it look better, but it took forever.” Clicquot was not to be defeated. In a move that would have Karren Brady singing her praises on The Apprentice, she came up with a revolutionary idea.
“One day, she ran down to her cellar and said, ‘I have an idea. Take my kitchen table and drill holes in it then turn it upside down!’ Her staff ridiculed her but she insisted they do it,” explains Mazzeo. She then proceeded to store bottles of champagne in the holes, upside down at an angle. In a process that became known as ‘riddling’ the bottles were rotated every day and the sediment settled in the neck of the bottle, rather than at the bottom, making it easier to remove. The diamond clear champagne we recognise today was born and Clicquot’s business sky-rocketed, leaving her rival Jean-Rémy Moët in the dust. In 1818, in a move we will all be eternally grateful for, she went on to invent rosé champagne.
Only one personal letter, written to her great, great granddaughter before she died aged 89, survives. In it, she says: “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!”
Today, Veuve Clicquot is still a global success, selling over one million cases of champagne annually. And the woman herself is commemorated at the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards, which recognise women who demonstrate Clicquot’s ‘enterprising spirit, courage and determination’.
“Without Clicquot’s invention, champagne would probably have faded away, or only been drunk by aristocrats,” concludes Mazzeo. Wine expert Jane Parkinson adds, “She continues to be a real inspiration. Her star shines even brighter today than it did when she was alive.”
Meet two of the just-announced winners of this year’s Veuve Clicquot Business Woman awards
Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award
Winner: Sarah Wood, 42, CEO, Unruly
Newcastle-born Sarah co-founded Unruly in 2006. An ad tech company that helps ad brands get their videos watched, tracked and shared across the internet, Unruly uses emotional audience data and user-friendly video formats to increase engagement, brand performance and publisher revenues. She also shared advice at Stylist's Life Lessons event.
The judges said: “Sarah is a role model for women in tech. She has been voted one of 15 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc and one of 10 London-Based Entrepreneurs to Watch by Forbes. She is also an ambassador for the Your Life campaign, an initiative designed to get more students, particularly girls, to take maths and science.”
Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award
Winner: Cassandra Stavrou, 32, founder and CEO, Propercorn
Healthy popcorn producer Propercorn started in Cassandra’s kitchen when she was 25, after she realised that all snacks left her feeling either guilty or dissatisfied. It took almost two years to make the brand a reality in 2011. It now has a 37-strong team and is available in 11 countries.
The judges said: “More than two million packs of Propercorn are sold per month. Cassandra also developed ‘The Propercorn Platform’ to help other young entrepreneurs with funding. She demonstrated her creative vision through visualising the product she wanted to make and turning it into a viable business without compromise.”
Photography: Alamy, Press Association