War and Booze: The Story of Veuve Clicquot, Napoleon, and the First Modern Champagne

Image courtesy of Veuve Clicquot. Image courtesy of Veuve Clicquot.

 I came across this fascinating story over the past week and couldn’t resist running it down and sharing it with readers (in the same way I did several months back with landpower’s role in the Rosetta Stone discovery).  Much, much, much, more important, however: my wife is a huge Veuve Clicquot fan and so the truth is this really is just for her.  What follows is the story of Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin from Linda Rottenberg’s book, Crazy is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags (pages 70-71):

“In 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, Russia had just invaded France. When Russian troops occupied Riems, soldiers were given free rein to loot and pillage local vineyards, including one run by Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the young widow of Francois Clicquot.

But Veuve Clicquot, as she was widely known (verve in French is for “widow”), was a cunning adversary, who also happened to have a sharp business mind. Born to prominent parents, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin had married the heir to the House of Clicquot. He died six years later, leaving the twenty-seven-year-old novice in charge of the family business, including banking, wool, and sparkling wine. At the time champagne was a small-time enterprise. Veuve Clicquot revolutionized the industry by storing the bottles upsides down in special racks, turning them, then freezing off the excess yeast. The new technique resulted in a shaper taste, less sweet, with smaller bubbles. Her 1811 vintage is said to have been the first truly modern champagne.

Yet no sooner had she perfected it than swarms of Russian soldiers were at her cellar door. Her more experienced rivals chose to go underground. They shuttered their businesses and protected their vineyards against marauding soldiers. At first, Widow Clicquot considered this approach. ‘Everything is going badly,’ she wrote a friend. ‘I have been occupied for so many days with walling up my cellars, but I know full well that this will not prevent them from being robbed and pillaged. If so, I am ruined.’

Then Clicquot did what all good entrepreneurs do. She pivoted to seize a marketing opportunity. She resolved to get the Russian Army wasted. Her bet was that when the soldiers returned to Russia, they would have an insatiable taste for her champagne. ‘Today they drink,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow they will pay!’ She drowned them in wine but smartly held back the vintage of 1811. When French soldiers arrived a few months later to push out the Russians, she repeated her stunt. She gave Napoleon’s officers free champagne and glasses, but because they couldn’t hold the flutes while riding on their horses, they took their military sabers and lopped off the necks of the bottles. The ceremonial custom of sabrage was born.

Veuve Clicquot’s biggest gambit came in 1814. When it became clear that the war would soon end, she took several thousand bottles of that 1811 vintage and decided to risk them all, running the blockade, shipping them to Russia, beating her competitors to a lucrative market. The plan worked. Russians had already been clamoring for the Widow by name. The moment a cease-fire was announced, her bottles arrived in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a drinking frenzy ensued, and Czar Alexander soon declared he would drink nothing else. Veuve Clicquot became a leading international luxury brand and the Grande Dame of Champagne is often credited with becoming the first woman to lead a multinational business…

In case after case, entrepreneurs who succeed in times of turmoil manage to contain their fear or anxiety. They don’t succumb to the agitation around them; they stay calm, recognize the opportunities that the disruption around them creates, then seek to exploit them. They respond to chaos not with panic but with strategic precision. If anything, they use the disruption to outflank their competitors.

So next time adversity approaches or you face down a foe, don’t rush for shelter. Instead, channel the Widow, pop some bubbly, and clink with the enemy.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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