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Original Essays

The Widow Clicquot and the Origins of Wine-Country Tourism

by Tilar Mazzeo
  1. The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
    $8.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A]n intoxicating business biography." The Wall Street Journal

    "Mazzeo's tale moves swiftly through Barbe-Nicole's many accomplishments, including her method for storing bottles nose-down — an innovation that allowed the second fermentation detritus to be cleared efficiently, setting her far ahead of her competitors." Los Angeles Times

  2. Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma
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    This is a guide to wineries where you can find excellent handcrafted wines made by on-site proprietors, often with only a local distribution and limited production, places where wine tasting gets down-to-earth — no one needs to show off how developed his or her palate is.
During the year or so when I was writing The Widow Clicquot, part of my day was a mid-morning walk with a neighbor and friend down to the end of our street, where the vineyards started. It would have been more appropriate, I suppose, if those vineyards had been in some undiscovered corner of the Champagne and if my home had been a charming rural relic. But, instead, the book was largely written in a low-slung 1950s ranch house in Sonoma County, California, where the big business of wine tourism was always inescapably just on the edge of our consciousness.

Sometimes driving up Highway 101, where the billboards pointing visitors to the wine country's stucco palaces and tasting venues are hard to miss, I would wonder about how a beverage — even one as patently delicious as wine — could spark an economic engine of such magnitude. In Sonoma and Napa Counties, tourism brings in over a billion dollars a year in revenue and more than five million visitors.

But what were the origins of all this wine tourism, at home and abroad? For a wine and travel writer, it was a question that particularly piqued my curiosity. At the local wine libraries in Healdsburg and St. Helena, where a good deal of the dustier research for The Widow Clicquot took place, I quickly discovered that Northern Californians have been crafting the region's reputation as a curious oenophile's delight for more than a century. Savvy booksellers were marketing Sonoma as a picturesque destination by the end of the 19th century, billing it as a rural retreat where wealthy westerners could summer on the banks of the Russian River and travel by train through vineyards and ranches.

Wine enthusiasts came in especially large numbers to see the celebrated Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony, established in 1880s; for several decades at the beginning of the 20th century, the winery was second only to Disneyland as a tourist attraction in the state. Determined collectors can still find vintage postcards of the founder's fanciful Asti Villa — perhaps the first stucco palace of the wine country. (And curious aficionados will know that the original nineteenth-century cellars on the Asti estate were reopened to the public in the summer of 2008, as Cellar No. 8.)

Yet commercial wine tourism of the sort that we find today in Sonoma or Napa Counties didn't start in California, of course. The rise of the regional "wine country" as a destination had its origins in France during the 1850s, when new modes of mass transportation made it possible to move wine and people around the world more efficiently. Soon, wine tasting and cellar visits found their way onto the "must see" lists of leisure-class travelers, encouraged by savvy vintners who pioneered some of the essentials of the luxury tasting experience — from cellar tours to stunning settings. And who can be surprised to learn that the Widow Clicquot — the woman who helped to turn her local sparkling wine into global icon and who internationalized the wine trade — was at the vanguard of this movement?

A legend in her own lifetime and applauded throughout Europe as one of her century's most talented entrepreneurs, the Widow Clicquot also became one of the region's most famous tourist attractions. She was arguably the first woman in history to run an international commercial empire of such scope, and part of her great achievement as a businesswoman was the way she created brand recognition for her champagne wine. In Britain, a "bottle of the widow" was synonymous with sparkling wine. But, despite her astonishing personal celebrity, she was also a private and often retiring woman, and some of the best accounts of the Widow Clicquot in her later years come from the travel journals published by those who went as tourists to get a glimpse of Barbe Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin — the so-called Grande Dame of the Champagne — and her renowned cellars.

The railroad stopped just at the foot of her country estate at Boursault, and a visit to the Widow at her splendidly ornate château and, of course, to the nearby winemaking facilities and scenic vineyards was a popular stop on the tourist itinerary of eastern France. And, needless to say, people came to sample her wines, as well. Nineteenth-century travel books tell of the warm reception visitors received at her estate and offer a glimpse into the keen marketing strategy that this blend of opulence and hospitality already represented in the world of wine. One visitor who made the trip to the Widow's country castle in the 1860s remarked that the château's "grandiose spaciousness and luxurious appurtenances make it a wonder of every Parisian badaud and rustic visitor."

These badauds — or gawking sightseers — turned the legend of the Widow Clicquot — celebrated in literature as the uncrowned Queen of Reims — into one of her century's premier wine-country destinations. She wasn't the only stop on the itinerary of these thirsty travelers, however. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, the winemakers at Moët et Chandon in nearby Épernay were cashing in on the fame of their estates — a fame that owed a good deal to Napoléon Bonaparte's choice of their cellars as one of his favorite weekend retreats in the Champagne. At the height of his power, Napoléon came to taste the wines and visit his friends' cellars. During my own research and travels in the Champagne, I came across an early picture postcard celebrating this famous friendship at a weekend flea market in the town square. In the image, the emperor is surrounded by oak barrels and shakes hands with the estate's proprietor. Surely here are the origins of the familiar winemaker's tour.

The entrepreneur who raised wine tourism to its commercial apex in the Champagne, however, was another of the region's renowned widows — Madame Louise Pommery. Following in the footsteps of the Widow Clicquot, the Widow Pommery took over the family wine business after her husband's death in 1858, introduced the world to the new and drier style of champagne that we know today as brut, and, in the space of a decade, captured the British market in bubbly with the same dazzling entrepreneurship that had characterized Madame Clicquot's first rise to international fame and fortune half a century before.

Like the Widow Clicquot, Pommery wasted no time in constructing an imposing estate that would lure these new wine tourists to her cellars and, she hoped, turn them into loyal consumers for years to come. Pommery's domaine and production center was built in the heart of Reims, not far from the railways that were making international trade and tourism possible, and it was designed specifically to capitalize on the commercial development of the Champagne as "wine country" during the 1850s. To attract visitors to her estate, she commissioned a sculptor to transform her underground caves into galleries and initiated a tradition of cellar tours that remains an essential part of the wine-tasting experience around the world. Visitors to the Champagne today can still visit her caves — or the renowned estates of the Widow Clicquot and her archrival Jean-Rémy Moët. Or pick up a good book and a glass of bubbly for some luxurious armchair travels. It's all part, it turns out, of a time-honored tradition of dreaming about some of the world's most popular wine-country destinations.

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Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Collins 2008) and of the forthcoming guides to the Back-Lane Wineries of Sonoma and Back-Lane Wineries of Napa (The Little Bookroom). She teaches literature and travel writing at Colby College. spacer

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