Silverado vineyards

Silverado vineyards

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Veuve Clicquot - An Entrepreneur Par Excellence


Our local library has an ongoing sale of used books, and one in particular seized my attention.  It was a biography of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin.  Champagne aficionados know her as La Veuve (The Widow), La Grande Dame and Veuve Clicquot.   I have enjoyed more than a few bottles of her sparkling wine, however, I knew nothing about the person behind the famous yellow/orange label.  Who was she?  How did she get into the champagne business?  What was her secret to success? 

Born December 16, 1777, she and her two siblings enjoyed an aristocratic and privileged life in Reims. Her father, Nicholas Ponsardin, was a wealthy, politically astute, textile entrepreneur who was Reims’ largest employer.  The Ponsardins not only survived the revolution of 1789—and many aristocrats did not—they continued to prosper quite well.

 In 1797 she married Francois-Marie Clicquot, son of another affluent textile merchant.  Francois’ father owned a sideline wine distribution business named Clicquot-Muiron that he founded in 1772.  Francois and Barge-Nicole took it over in 1802 to pursue their dream of not merely distributing wines, but also producing and selling their own.  

Francois never realized his dream, for he died suddenly in 1805.  Barbe-Nicole, with a six year old daughter, was left with a business in which she had no training or expertise.

Undaunted, she recapitalized the firm in 1806 as Veuve Clicquot Fourneaux with investments from Francois’ father and Jerome Fourneaux.  The dream stalled again when that unprofitable entity terminated four years later.  Still feeling the entrepreneurial spirit, and aided an additional investment from her father in law, she reformed it in 1810 as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Company.

Growing a business in France in the early 1800s could not have been more challenging.  France was in near continuous war from the 1790s to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Buffeted by the intermittent warring coalitions and the on-again/off-again blockades, Clicquot’s marketing efforts were severely hindered.  However, near the end of the war, she scored her first big success; she risked running Napoleon’s blockade against Russia.  

With the assistance of her best sales agent, Louis Bohne, she had over ten thousand bottles (of the legendary 1811 vintage) smuggled into and waiting on the Russian docks when trade was restored.  She quickly followed that up with another ten thousand plus bottles of Russia’s preferred style: hyper-sweet, viscous and bubbly.  Russia’s royalty and aristocracy became her best customers.   

Champagne drinkers know the tiny bubbles arise from the secondary fermentation inside the bottle.  Problem: what to do with the resulting sediment?  Previously, the producer’s process was to decant from bottle to bottle.  However, The Widow and her cellar master, Antoine Muller, devised a holding rack/riddling routine that manually edged the sediment into the neck; this greatly simplified the next step of expelling the sediment.  Faster and more efficient than decanting, she and her employees kept this “mass production” process secret from her competitors for many years. 

 Following on with the success of Russia and the development of the riddling process, she next acquired new vineyards and substantially increased her production.  In 1828, feeling flush with francs and overconfidence, she unwisely went into banking and back into her father’s textile business.  Had it not been for Edouard Werlé, an employee and partner-to-be (in 1831), who assisted her with a significant line of credit, financial ruin was certain.

Barbe-Nicole retired in 1841 at age sixty four, leaving Werlé (son Alfred in 1884) in charge of the company.  They propelled it to new heights, acquiring new vineyards, increasing sales and continuing to export to more countries.

At no time were direct descendants ever involved in the company, and for all practical purposes the real “Veuve Clicquot era” ended with her death in 1865. The company went public in 1963, and its iconic yellow label debuted in 1873.  In 1986 it was merged with LMVH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), an international luxury goods conglomerate.  At nearly one and a half million cases, it is the second largest champagne producer after Moët and Chandon, their stable mate at LMVH.