My miraculous luck never fails. First night nosing about Kyoto I find a scotch bar. The next evening a champagne boutique. I kid you not. I don’t know how I find them; perhaps they find me. I only know its irresistible golden glow beckoned across the dark gray street.
As I duck out of a drenching downpour and stash my umbrella, I find the “Happy Hours” sign outside and bottles in the window do not indicate a wine bar. Toshiko, the hostess (a university major in the hospitality industry who learned her excellent English in upstate New York) points out that I’ve stumbled into Champagne Boutique YUHI. This is what the Japanese call dai kichi luck—the pinnacle of good fortune.
It’s a small but elegantly appointed shop with a three stools along the bar. Obviously they’re not expecting crowds. Toshiko explains that they offer tastings at 1300 yen (about $13-16 Canadian dollars depending on the sine wave of the money markets) per glass. Today she is sampling Veuve Clicquot.
What better way to revive when slightly jet lagged on a rainy night? She pours me a glass and one for herself. She gets to drink on the job? It’s to make the customers feel comfortable, she says. Then she smiles and slides a glass of water out from under the counter.
We settle in like old girlfriends catching up and talk. Two women on a rainy night sipping defiant bubbles which continue to rise no matter how hard the rain beats down.
We share a second glass. And talk and talk and talk. About everything: politics, history, culture, travel, family, our lives, our dreams. The special challenges for women in this world. I ask Toshiko whether she knows the inspiring story of the widow (veuve). No, she does not.
Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (better known for her champagne brand Veuve Clicquot than her name) is described by her biographer, Tilar J. Mazzeo, as a woman who negotiated “those familiar crossroads of grief, despair, and opportunity” by taking charge of her own destiny.
Her technical and commercial innovation was both remarkable and unique at a time when women of her class served as decoration, not entrepreneurs who established distinctive world class brands. Or, for those few who did succeed in a man’s world, their achievements went largely unrecorded and unremarked.
At that time in France, only widows were permitted by law to run their own lives with the same freedom as a man. Mazzeo credits 27 year-old Barbe-Nicole, who had no business training or experience of winemaking, with nurturing a small, family wine brokerage into the most important champagne of the 19th century in little more than a decade.
As the Ancien Régime of Old France disintegrated, the young widow Clicquot managed to bootleg her bubbly into Russia in spite of the Continental Blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. An audacious dance, that.
Because she thought like a corporation before such entities existed, seized opportunity, took risks and placed herself on the rise of emerging trends, now Veuve Clicquot is one of the world’s most recognizable wines. Barbe-Nicole was among the first to blaze trail for women who would follow. Mazzeo calls her “the first celebrity business woman.”
In a letter to her great-grandchild, Barbe-Nicole wrote:
I am going to tell you a secret…. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me…to dare things before others. …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.
The shop must close soon. Toshiko asks whether she should pour another glass. Indeed. Why ever not? To us! To audacity! To rising like bubbles no matter how hard the rain beats down.