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65 of 72 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Tilar Mazzeo's The Widow Cliquot tells the story of one of the most interesting of the early champagne tycoons: a woman who, in the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, founded a dynasty. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the daughter of a prosperous Reims merchant, married into the Cliquot family, who sold both cloth and wine. After her husband's death, she chose to continue running the family's wine business, concentrating on the fizzy wine we now call champagne.

The Widow Clicquot faced long odds-indeed, she was a true gambler-because travel was hazardous and much of the export market was closed. Still, she clung to her vision with a remarkable tenacity and was ultimately successful-Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is still one of the best known champagne houses in the world.

The book has a great deal of interesting information on the history and production of champagne-this gives the Widow's life some context. Mazzeo's finest moment is her taut telling of the delivery of the 1811 vintage under the specter of war in 1813. Mazzeo clearly sets the scene and lets the reader know just how high the stakes are. We really get a sense of the menace-and triumph-of the Widow's life.

Much of what happens after that drama, which falls about in the middle of the book, is unfortunately anti-climax. Mazzeo's problem is that there simply aren't any sources to guide her: since the Widow left scanty records of her personal life, we just don't know what was going on there. It's no coincidence that a well-documented episode from the Widow's business career is the best part of the book: clearly, there were solid sources to ground the story here.

There also seems to be a great deal of telling, rather than showing in the narrative. Time and again, the reader is told that Barbe-Nicole was an exceptional woman, and that she couldn't have been successful had she started her career a few years earlier or a few years later. We are also reminded frequently that Barbe-Nicole was middle class-but she came from one of the wealthiest families in Reims and ultimately ran a multi-billion dollar (in today's terms) business empire. True, she was not a titled noble, but today's audiences might not consider a woman born to her privilege and riches "middle class."

Much of the problem is apparent in the title-it's just too wordy for its own good. Why not "The Widow Cliquot: The Woman Who Ruled a Champagne Empire?" The book suffers similarly-though it's less than 200 pages, it still feels repetitious and over-long at points.

It's too bad, because Mazzeo has an great story to tell, and where she's got the benefit of solid sources, she's does a fine job. Perhaps this story would have worked better as one chapter in a book devoted to similar pioneers? It's certainly a good read, and a story that more people should know about.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
To her last surviving great-grandchild Madame Clicquot writes, "I am going to tell you a secret... 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... I am called today the Grand Lady of Champagne!"

Coming from a genteel class, it was unusual in that day to run a business, these women instead, were expected to sit leisurely around drawing rooms in idle chatter but when only twenty-seven years old, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot became a widow. The hurdles of making wine and champagne: unreliable bottle quality, turmoil of war preventing export, unusually wet or hot weather, all became Widow Clicquot's worry.

Wines that sparkled were wines that had gone bad. And beginning in the Middle Ages in the Champagne region of France, it was happening more and more. To turn this seeming catastrophe into a success put Champagne on the map. Second fermentation, a disaster for wine, was coaxed into happening in a bottle of champagne.

The Widow Clicquot became, in the nineteenth century, a premier name in Champagne. This book puts a face on that label.

This book is not only the very interesting story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot but it is also full of very fascinating details about making wine, making champagne, labeling varietals, labeling quality. Second fermentation, the use of sulfur and wine remaining on the lees all makes sense to me now. If you love wine you will really enjoy the history of this fascinating woman and the process of making wine.

The one detriment to this book is Tilar Mazzeo's overuse of the word "perhaps." It leaves the reader wondering just how much of the biographical information is accurate.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2008
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
As a lover of history, a career woman who takes pride in other women's achievements in the business world, and an oenophile (whose favorite champagne is Clicquot), I could hardly wait to read this book. In fact, the summary of the book seemed to be written just for me! What I found when I read this book, however, was very different from what I expected.

I feel as if I read a "docudrama" or some similar fictional account based loosely upon a few historical facts. The Widow Clicquot should have been a 50 page thesis for a history grad student (assuming the author was first able to unearth sufficient historical facts). Instead, the author stretched this book to 194 pages in the advance review copy - at least 100 pages past the book's historical-accuracy-breaking-point. The author did her readers a great disservice by attempting to write a biography about Madame Clicquot when the author herself repeatedly admits in the book that she could find almost no recorded history about the lady. Was this book pursued purely for commercial reasons, without regard to the lack of substantive content? Was the author too wrapped up in her intellectual love affair with the concept of Madame Clicquot to recognize that "The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It" fails to tell us much of anything about how Madame created her Champagne Empire, or how she ruled it?

My greatest complaint is that Ms. Mazzeo trys to create historical fact out of thin air throughout The Widow Clicquot. I could provide innumerable examples of the author leaping to conclusions about what Clicquot felt or saw, what Clicquot did and why she did it - all without any sort of reference material to back up her conclusions. For example, the way Ms. Mazzeo writes should provide you with an idea of my problems with this book: "Barbe-Nicole probably also learned..." "Barbe-Nicole certainly learned..." "Barbe-Nicole surely did not miss..." (pages 42-43 of the ARC). Time and again throughout the book, Ms. Mazzeo make leaps of logic regarding what Madame Clicquot knew, did, loved, liked, disliked and how she felt. I understand that some assumptions must be made about a historical figure about whom so little appears to be known, but the casual way the author has managed to spin a tale that is nearly empty of hard fact while being full of gossip, innuendo and guess - well, it didn't sit well with me, and if you are a student of history, I doubt it will sit well with you, either.
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42 of 53 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 26, 2008
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I love champagne, especially The Widow; I love France and history and stories about brave women.

I didn't love this book.

Mazzeo couldn't decide what sort of book she was writing. It's not a scholarly study (for all that she splashes her degree across the title page) nor - as several other reviewers point out - is it quite a work of fiction. It's almost a personal memoir - too personal for my taste - but it misses the mark there, too.

Certainly Mazzeo wants to impress us. She tries very hard to make Barbe-Nicole Clicquot a metaphor for women in history, for the narrative of white space, for all those unvoiced shuttles, but she has this horridly Sarah Palin-esqe tendency to get cute about it -- the thinner the facts, the more adorable the narration.

There are two sorts of biographies: those which contain facts and analysis and those which speculate. This is the latter.

The word "surely" appears on every page.

OK, not much is known about Madame Clicquot (whom Mazzeo relentlessly and patronizingly refers to by her first name); but a great deal is known about the history of Reims and the champagne industry. Mazzeo has done admirable work on this and if she would just give it to the reader, all would be well. But she wants to be a biographer, and this leads her down a dubious path.

The most important critical/theoretical work on women's biography is the late Carolyn Heilbrun's path-making Writing a Woman's Life Writing a Woman's Life (Ballantine Reader's Circle). Mazzeo must have read it, since she brings out various of its insights with girlish glee, but she never cites it. And she misses the big point, even as she laments the lack of a narrative women's history. The point is this: women's lives don't conform to the same paradigms as men's lives. Yes, Mazzeo says this, but -- rather like the Wife of Bath - she paints a very patriarchal lion even as she objects to the paradigm of lion-painting.

As for Mazzeo's claim to scholarship, the final nail in that myth's coffin is her statement in the opening paragraph of the last chapter, in which she crows delightedly over the Oxford English Dictionary STILL listing "champagne" as a meaning for "widow."

Well duh. The Oxford English Dictionary STILL lists every meaning ever attached to every word: that's the whole point of the OED. What the point of this book is, I'm not sure. Not tenure, I hope.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 24, 2008
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is not a wine geek account of the champagnes of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. You won't find tasting notes, vintage guides, production facts and figures, vineyard maps. It's about La Veuve, pure and simple. And that's not bad at all.

The author's viewpoint is stated elegantly in her introduction. She aims to tell "the story of a woman raised to be a wife and mother, left widowed before thirty with a small child, with no training and little experience of the world, who grasped firmly at the reins of her own destiny and, through sheer determination and talent, transformed a fledgling family wine trade into one of the great champagne houses of the world. Here, I thought, is a woman who refuses to compromise."

Indeed. We learn how, in the midst of political upheaval in France and the rest of Europe, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin went from the somewhat sheltered daughter of a successful Reims textile merchant; to the wife of something of a melancholic dilettante; to a widow suddenly left to manage a fledgling champagne business -- a woman alone in what was very much "a man's world" at the time. There are detours here and there to provide some basic information about the vineyards and the cellars, the evolution from early champagne in the sweet style to the modern fashion for brut champagne and other details. And of course, a thorough debunking of the myth of Dom Perignon.

But this is not a reference book on champagne for collectors or those looking to learn about the methode champenoise in intimate detail. It offers instead a colorful look at La Veuve herself, in her historical context. As the author discovered, the life of Barbe-Nicole is anything but well documented. But what she has pieced togther from a variety of sources -- including it seems her own imagination -- is an extremely touching and compelling portrait of a woman "who lived with audacity and intelligence" and "opened the road for new generations of women in the marketplace." Ironically, however, after the death of Barbe-Nicole, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was not headed by a woman again for well over a century.

This is a fascinating book, one that kept my attention from start to finish. Recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 30, 2008
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
While I'm more of a Belgian ale fan, I do enjoy sparkling wine occasionally. The Widow Clicquot is a nice mix of biography, wine history, and wine education. Sadly, and much to the author's frustration, little remains in the historic record of the personal life of this interesting woman. Records written in her own hand remain in her company's archives, and some business correspondence is extant that must give us a slight insight into her business personality, especially in communicating with her trusted partner and head sales rep. So the author is definitely excused for taking the liberty of letting her imagination intrude when speculating what Barb-Nicole may have felt during her long and full life.

Some readers, especially those already up to speed on wines, may find the wine history, terms, and current status rather intruding, as it is freely interspersed within the book's chapters. I found it rather engaging, as it moves both the biography and wine history along together. It is also appropriate, as Barb-Nicole lived during many of the developments in the emerging international champagne industry. (I have to admit a new longing to taste champagne as it was at the beginning of the 19th century...)

The book is well-researched, very readably written, and the author obviously truly enjoys her subjects. Salut!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I have been listening to the audio version of this book. I am about to tear out my hair because it is so poorly written and narrated. The author's method of "imagining" what her characters "must have" seen, thought, and felt is very distracting and certainly undermines her credibility. Similarly, she goes over the same information many times...WHY?? The narrator of the audio version, Susan Erickson, makes the experience of listening to the book even more painful by coming to a full stop before each French name or word and then s l o w l y pronouncing it phonetically. AWFUL! TERRIBLE!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I read this book two months ago, and it's still frustrating to think that something so poorly crafted and built on a flimsy foundation could have made it to the best seller list. Seriously? There are so many awesome books which will never get popular, and THIS one snags a ride on the hype machine.

"Non-fiction" means a book is factual, unless the definitions have changed along the line and I didn't get the email update. This book, in it's hundreds of pages, has about the same amount of facts as your average huffington post article.

It could actually have been an entertaining read if it was re-engineered to be a dramatic fictional retelling based on fact, like a Tracy Chevalier or a Susan Vreeland book--oh hey, that's totally a real painting, but here's a fun new story I made up for it.
Instead, this book is asking you to bore through page after page of "she possibly did this" or "this might've been the circumstance" and take that as legit non-fiction.
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24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is yet another book project that cannot fail - the source materials and corollary knowledge easily sells the work - and yet it managed to fall tremendously flat. Between trademark-orange covers (one wonders how she managed to secure this surely-copyrighted color), we have a pseudo-biography of a historically notable woman written by a beautiful (with obligatory cover photo) young woman professor with a gorgeously exotic name. This is what one calls a "perfect marketing storm." We know we are in for a fizzy treat of "this person is important because she is a woman in business/history" and I am more than willing to drink that cup. Ah, but beware the lees! The imagined insights into her mind were both presumptuous and insignificant - a difficult feat in itself! On the one hand we were invited to celebrate a woman who did little more than spend male investments and lend her name to a product she did not invent. Her one significant contribution to the art of champagne - remuage sur pupitre (a new method of disgorging the dead yeast cells from the bottle during fermentation) - was dubiously chronicled and under-narrated. On the other hand, we were asked to forgive her bourgeois callousness as she lamented difficult sales - particularly difficult for her male agents risking life abroad - of her luxury product to people often on the edge of starvation in Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic France, Russia, and Great Britain. The other presumably unintended effect of her rise, the closing of the corporate door on other women in business, should also, according to the author's prose, be largely ignored. As should be her law-breaking to secure a monopoly in Russia. As should her exclusion of her own daughter and grand-daughter from the family business. As should her iron-fisted matriarch behavior. You get the point...
For all my complaints, I would readily forgive the flaws if the portrait of the woman involved were in any way fleshed out, or if any new material came to light, or if any of the "mysteries" and/or scandals of her life - particularly the dubious matter of the clerk Eduouard Werlé who somehow had the millions necessary to become a full partner - were in any way clarified by her research. Sadly, even her knowledge of French language is deficient (a woman does not "assist" at a ball, "assister à" = "to attend a function") and her glaring errors around Louis' infamous dictum, l'État, c'est moi (never happened) and her assertion that "champagne had always been the drink of kings" are just plain gratuitous for a product that had only recently (less than 50 years) been invented.
Lord, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Mazzeo sifted through a great amount of material to find anything of substance on the life of Widow Clicquot. Much of her story is lost to time, having never been recorded. Thankfully, some letters still exist as well as some few other primary sources of her time or shortly thereafter.

My kudos to the author for the amount of research she did, and especially for the wonderfully literate, information-packed, and yet still easily read way the Widow Clicquot's story is offered here.

I had great difficulty tearing myself away from the book, and so ended up reading it all in one shot. Clicquot's story is captivating in the amount of work she put into making her house a major Champagne player, developing new technologies, and changing Champagne's face in the world into the one drink most closely associated with good living, celebration, and high society. If not for Widow Clicquot's diligence and vision 200 years ago, Champagne would have a very different place in the world today. Hers is a mesmerizing story, fascinating for it's historical location between the French Revolution and the end of the Napoleonic era, and inspiring for it being the story of a woman doing what a woman wasn't supposed to be doing (especially not a woman of such wealth and renowned family). And Mazzeo's gifts as a story-teller are truly up to the greatness of the story she tells.

Mazzeo begins the story with the young Barbe-Nicole being snuck out of the convent school so she wouldn't be executed in the revolution. She takes us through the tumultuous years after the Revolution, wars with England and other countries, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the incredible changes in technology, industry, religiosity, and culture that swept through Europe and Russia in the years from the late 1700s into the mid-1800s. Mazzeo offers that history in concise and quick form, but doesn't cheat it of its depth, bouncing Clicquot's story against it and through all the way through the book. And she offers not only a history of the military stuff happening in Europe, but also the economic. How businesses were affected (especially Clicquot's business, of course), offering a more holistic history of the period than most historical textbooks I've been forced to slog through that seem to think that the only important facet of history is a litany of battles and generals.

This is truly an excellent history of a magnificent and inspiring woman through some of Europe's most interesting historical times - the beginning of the post-feudal post-monarchical modern era that we continue to live in. And an excellent history of what is (in my opinion, anyway) the best Champagne in the world, and also the history of Champagne itself.

For those interested in food, this is a must-have book, to sit on the shelf with "Salt", "Beef", "Cod", "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" and other recent books on the history of food. For those interested in European history, this is a must-have book. And for those interested in a history of bygone times that focuses on the people, not just the kings and generals, this is a must-have.

One warning, though - before you sit down to read, you better get yourself of Veuve Clicquot (or other Champagne - don't go sparkling wine on this one). I read this at a church youth retreat, so had no drink with me. I wish I had followed the advice I've just given, because the drink is mentioned so constantly, I felt awful not being able to taste it and enjoy it in the reading.

Definitely read it with a bottle of the good bubbly at your side. Maybe even in the bathtub while your butler brings you caviar.

on edit: on Dec. 4, I fixed the constant misspelling of Clicquot, thanks to an observant commenter. Egads!
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