How One Woman Overcame Pandemics, Mental Illness, Sexism, War, and Napoleon to Build a Champagne Empire [GUEST POST]

Grapes product quality control inspection in the vineyard. Young woman farmer checking grapes quality in harvest season. Agriculture occupation concept.
Barbe-Nicole smelling grapes. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Rosenberg)

For centuries, women have faced the devastation of pandemics and roadblocks of sexist laws. Yet, one of them, the audacious and determined Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, found a way to build a champagne empire despite the hardships.

In 1805, the Typhoid Fever pandemic swept through the Champagne region of Reims, France, and took the life of champagne house owner Francois Clicquot, who suffered from mental illness. His young wife, Barbe-Nicole, was left a single parent to a six-year-old daughter. Her father-in-law promptly informed Clicquot winery customers, employees, and vendors they were closing the doors.

Under Napoleon Code, she inherited only a quarter of her husband’s property, the rest reverting to his family. Now known as Veuve (widow) Clicquot, Barbe-Nicole needed money to support herself and her daughter and was dismayed that their champagne winery would be taken from her. In a time when married women were prevented from owning a business in France, she found a loophole. Seeking legal advice, she learned that a widow could own a business and property. She’d never run a business or handled finances, but Barbe-Nicole was determined to continue the champagne house. She bargained with her father-in-law to carry on the winery, which he agreed to on the condition he chose a male business partner for her.

Napoleon
Napoleon (Image courtesy Rebecca Rosenberg)

Despite her ambitions and best intentions, her first steps in the male-dominated world of wine-making were doomed. She started this new venture in the middle of thirteen years of Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). As Napoleon fought to rule Europe, he blocked trade between countries and destroyed Europe’s economy, making it nearly impossible to sell wine. By 1810, Veuve Clicquot’s business partner knew their venture failed and broke off the partnership.

On her own again, her father-in-law pressed her to close the winery and stem the losses. In the face of rising doubts and mounting debt, Barbe-Nicole became more determined. She boldly rebranded the winery as Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, using her title, widow (Veuve) and adding her maiden name, so there would be no mistake who was making the wine. Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin was the first champagne house owned by a woman.

Veuve Clicquot vineyard before harvest.
Veuve Clicquot vineyard before harvest. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Rosenberg)

The next few years were bleak for the single mother managing the vineyards and winery alone. Napoleon and his French army waged two more wars; the Fifth Coalition War with Austria and Britain and the Peninsular War with Spain. In 1812, Barbe-Nicole’s champagne sales fell from a peak of 130,000 bottles to 10,000 bottles. She used those dark years to improve the wine. Champagne in the early 1800s was unpredictable and mysterious. It could grow snakes of yeast, be flat and lifeless, or murky with frog’s-eye bubbles. Barbe-Nicole invented new methods to enhance her champagne’s clarity and taste. Eventually, she created the riddling rack, a large board with holes to store wine bottles neck down. A gentle rotation of the bottle slid sediment down into the bottleneck for easier removal. This method of riddling bottles and the riddling rack are still used in champagne making today.

“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. Act with audacity.”

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot

The Great Comet of 1811, known as Napoleon’s Comet, streaked across the sky for one million miles and was visible for more than two hundred and sixty days. Prophets said the comet predicted Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the war of 1812. But, for Barbe-Nicole, the Great Comet of 1811 brought the most magnificent and bountiful grape harvest of a decade. Using her new techniques and skills, she crafted an exquisite champagne that would make her famous. Le Vin de Comète was the first vintage champagne ever made, using only grapes from that comet year instead of the traditional method of blending wines from different years.

Veuve Clicquot caves
Veuve Clicquot caves (Photo courtesy Rebecca Rosenberg)

While Barbe-Nicole aged her Vin de la Comète in the chalk caves under her winery, France remained in turmoil as Napoleon waged the Sixth Coalition war against Prussia, Sweden, Austria, Russia, the United Kingdom, and several German states. In 1812, he marched his Grand Army of half a million soldiers to Moscow. When they arrived, Moscow was deserted and burned by the Russians. Napoleon had to march his army back across the vast frozen wilderness in the winter. Bitter winds froze the horses in place. Men died of Typhus and other diseases. Battling peasants and Cossacks on the way back, Napoleon’s Grand Army dwindled to ten thousand men.*  When Napoleon heard of a coup d’etat in Paris, he abandoned his army and fled back through Barbe-Nicole’s town of Reims, seeking lodging at her father’s house.

Prussians, Cossacks, and Russians invaded and occupied Reims until Napoleon abdicated in March 1814. Finally, the time had come for Barbe-Nicole to launch the audacious strategy she had been planning. She hired a Dutch vessel, packed it with 10,550 bottles of Clicquot champagne, and sent it with her salesman, Louis Bohne, through the Baltic Sea.

He found an eager market starved for fine wine and other luxury goods. “Our ship is the first for many years to sail North…with a cargo of champagne,” Bohne wrote. He immediately sold out his stock in Konigsberg and St. Petersburg. Barbe-Nicole sent another ship with 12,500 bottles.

By Autumn, they had 70,000 bottles committed. Barbe-Nicole worried they would run out. “What a lovely problem to have,” Bohne wrote. Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin rocketed to 280,000 bottles in 1821. Survival of the champagne house was assured. Had Barbe-Nicole remarried, her business and power would have been ceded to her new husband. Instead, by remaining a widow until she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot gave us a model of strength, creativity, and vision as she used her intelligence, tenacity, and sheer guts to break through the chaos and confusion in the world around her.

Synopsis banner
Rebecca Rosenberg's CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS
Lion Heart Publishing

Champagne, France, 1800. Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. Determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, she learns her childhood sweetheart, François Clicquot, wants to start a winery and marries him despite his mental illness.

Her husband’s tragic death forces her to become Veuve (Widow) Clicquot and grapple with a domineering partner, the complexities of making champagne, and six Napoleon wars, which cripple her ability to sell champagne. When she falls in love with her sales manager, Louis Bohne, who asks her to marry, she must choose between losing her winery to her husband, as dictated by Napoleon Code, or losing Louis.

In the ultimate showdown, Veuve Clicquot risks imprisonment and even death, defying Napoleon himself.

Champagne Widows awarded 2022 Editor’s Choice Historical Novel Society! “Barbe-Nicole is a strong, determined woman, who defies Napoleon to make her winery a success. Fascinating details about winemaking: soil, climate, barrels, bottles, and the various grapes. All this and more affect the smell and flavor of the wine. I could smell the wine along with Barbe-Nicole, since Rosenberg’s descriptions are so vivid. The narrative is interspersed with brief scenes about the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the Red Man, a devil figure disguised as a coachman, who encourages him to conquer Europe. The most moving parts are where Barbe-Nicole harvests grapes along with other women widowed by Napoleon’s wars.”

Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice

“This effervescent historical novel paints a richly detailed portrait of the enterprising Veuve Clicquot. The twinned plots of Clicquot and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall are filled with detail that give life to this far-off time. The prose is light, yet detailed, and peppered with moments of wry humor. Napoleon’s characterization is well-crafted and give his character new life. Clicquot’s character is charming, and readers will love getting to know her. Rosenberg has a superb eye for blending humor with drama.” 

Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize

“Barbe-Nicole is captivating, particularly with her inheritance of “Le Nez” and the effect on her life. From grapes to pigs, the adventures she gets into with her nose are fascinating and are described in detailed and engaging ways. The champagne empire she builds is admirable, as is her relationship with Francois and its challenges”

Writer’s Digest 2022

“For anyone who loves champagne, a must-read novel about Veuve Clicquot.”

Judithe Little, best-selling author of The Chanel Sisters

“These first known women of Champagne/Sparkling winemaking may not have even realized how strong they were until they had to learn and do it all to survive for themselves and their wineries! Reading Champagne Widows makes it even more of an honor to learn a craft still dominated by men.”

Penny Gadd-Coster, ExecutiveDirector of Winemaking, Rack & Riddle

“The sun-drenched vineyards of France, a real-life heroine who against all odds refuses to give up her dreams… and champagne. What’s not to love? And that’s just what Rebecca Rosenberg delivers in Champagne Widows. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was a woman ahead of her time, a fascinating blend of ingenuity, heart, and sheer tenacity, with a nose for wine and a head for business. A 19th century widow who built an empire as war raged all around her. Note: This richly woven tale is best savored slowly, though with all delicious things, it won’t be easy.”

Barbara Davis, best-selling author of The Last of the Moon Girls

Champagne Widows is a witty, accomplished novel, featuring a tough and charming heroine of the first order. One can’t help but root for Barbe-Nicole, an astute businesswoman who brilliantly holds her own against none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the events unfold two centuries ago, the story feels so modern, the characters could be your friends and neighbors. As easy to love as a glass of Veuve Clicquot, this may be Rebecca Rosenberg’s best book yet.”

Michelle Richmond, best-selling author of The Marriage Pact

Champagne Widows is an inspired story based on the real-life Grande Dame of Champagne, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who built her famous champagne empire amidst the turbulence of 19th century France. Barbe-Nicole is my kind of heroine: a woman with passion, courage, family loyalty, and a killer business sense. Rebecca Rosenberg’s sensual details make every scene of this intimate novel come alive. A true reading pleasure!”

Martha Conway, best-selling author of The Underground River and The Physician’s Daughter
About the author banner

Rebecca Rosenberg is a triple-gold award-winning author of Champagne Widows, lavender farmer, champagne geek, champagne tour guide, and cocktail creator for Breathless Wines. She is the moderator of Breathless Bubbles & Books and American Historical Novels.

Rebecca writes novels about history’s real-life women of substance who made an indelible mark on the world. Her novels have garnered many awards, including IBPA, IPPY, and starred Publisher Weekly reviews for her novels, The Secret Life of Mrs. London and Gold Digger: The Remarkable Baby Doe TaborAs a lavender farmer and founder of the largest lavender products manufacturer in America, Rebecca’s debut book was Lavender Fields of America.

For more information, visit Rebecca-Rosenberg.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on TwitterInstagramBookBub, and Goodreads.

Rebecca Rosenberg
Rebecca Rosenberg
Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours banner

CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS
By Rebecca Rosenberg
332 pp. Lion Heart Publishing. $16.

Purchase Champagne Widows direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these fine online retailers: AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-A-MillionHalf Price BooksHudson BooksellersIndieBoundPowell’s, or Walmart.

Champagne Widows is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Enter to win one of two paperback copies of Champagne Widows up for grabs! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on May 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

Disclaimer: Your email address will be added to Rebecca Rosenberg’s newsletter mailing list.

Please note: Giveaway is not presented by Jathan & Heather, Jathan & Heather Books, Jadeworks Entertainment, or any of its subsidiaries.

CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS blog tour schedule

About Rebecca Rosenberg
REBECCA ROSENBERG received her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. A staff reporter at the New York Post, she currently covers Manhattan Supreme Court. She has been a featured journalist on NBC's Dateline, CBS's 48 Hours, and the Investigation Discovery network.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: