Why champagne is the business that was carried forward by widows
While women were prohibited from owning businesses in 19th-century France, three widows who were exempt from the rule created some of the Champagne empires.
Some of the greatest champagne innovations came from the ingenuity of a few women. In the 19th century, the Napoleonic Code restricted women from owning businesses in France without the permission of their husbands or fathers. However, widows were exempt from the rule, creating an opportunity for Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin, Louise Pommery and Lily Bollinger – among others – to turn vineyards into empires and ultimately transform the champagne industry, changing it forever. the way it is made and marketed.
In 1798, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married François Clicquot, who then ran his family's small wine business, originally called Clicquot-Muiron et Fils in Reims. It turned into a financial disaster. When Clicquot died in 1805, leaving her a widow at the age of 27, she made the unconventional choice to take over the company.
It was a very unusual decision for a woman of her class. It was extremely unusual for her to have a business because she didn't need to... She could have spent her life sitting around.
In desperate need of money to continue the business, she asked her father-in-law for today's equivalent of around €835,000.
Although no one believed that an inexperienced woman could succeed in business, he gave her the money.
From the beginning, Barbe-Nicole used her widowed status as a marketing tool, with positive results. The champagne house became Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin - the French word veuve translates to 'widow'.
Although Barbe-Nicole completed a four-year apprenticeship with a local winemaker to better learn how to make the business grow, it was again on the verge of collapse in the early 19th century. She secured another 835 thousand euros from her father-in-law to save the business. However, doing so during the Napoleonic Wars in continental Europe would not be easy, as closed borders made it difficult to move product.
But by 1814, Barbe-Nicole knew she was running out of options. Faced with bankruptcy, it turned to a new market: Russia.
The second widow to revolutionize the industry was Louise Pommery. Born in 1819, Pommery entered the champagne scene late in Clicquot's life. When she was young, her mother sent her to school in England - an unusual move that would later be to her advantage.
'She wasn't just taught how to sew,' said Prince Alain de Polignac, Louise Pommery's great-grandson. Her mother gave her an education, which was unusual for a bourgeois girl of that time.
After her studies, she married Alexandre Pommery, who teamed up with Narcisse Greno in 1856 to build his existing Champagne house, creating Pommery et Greno. In 1858, Alexander died. For Louise Pommery, the next move was obvious. Eight days after his death, she stepped in to take over the business.
'Fate intervened and Madame Pommery was ready,' said de Polignac. 'She had a 15-year-old son and a baby in her arms, and instead of going back to her mother's house, she decided to take [Champagne's house]'.
Prince Alain de Polignac looks at a portrait of Louise Pommery (Credit: Lily Radziemski)
While Clicquot could have conquered Russia, Pommery was determined to dominate the English market.
At the time, champagne was extremely sweet – some bottles would have up to 300g of residual sugar compared to 12g in the most typical today – and was served over ice.
After the death of Louise Pommery in the mid-20th century, Lily Bollinger came on the scene.
She took over the house of Bollinger Champagne in 1941 when Jacques Bollinger, her husband and owner of the brand, died. At the time, women's rights to business ownership were still limited (until 1965 women were given full employment, banking and asset management rights without requiring permission) although widows were still able to bypassed the rules.
Bollinger took her champagne to the US.