Champagne Widows by Rebecca Rosenberg
Synopsis: Triple-gold-medal-winning author Rebecca Rosenberg serves up a triumphant tale of talent and ambition, love and loss, betrayal and redemption, and accepting yourself and others for who they are.
Champagne, France, 1800
Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole has inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell that makes her picky, persnickety, and particularly perceptive) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker.
Her parents, however, see Le Nez as a curse and try to marry her off to an unsuspecting suitor. But Barbe-Nicole is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne. When she learns her childhood sweetheart, François Clicquot, wants to start a winery, she rejects her parents' suitors and marries François despite his mental illness.
The Widow Known as Veuve Clicquot
Soon, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot must cope with her husband's death. Becoming a widow known as Veuve Clicquot, she grapples with a new overbearing partner, the difficulties of making champagne and the Napoleon Codes preventing women from owning a business.
All this while her father takes a military uniform contract from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who wages six wars against European monarchs, crippling Veuve Clicquot's ability to sell her champagne.
Excerpt: CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS BY Rebecca Rosenberg
“Champagne. In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.” –Napoleon Bonaparte
Reims, Champagne, France 1797
Grand-mère sways over the edge of the stone stairs into the cavern, and I step between her and eternity, dizzy from the bloody tang of her head bandage.
“Let’s go back. We’ll come another time.” I try to turn her around, so we don’t tumble into the dark crayère, but she holds firm.
“There won’t be another time if I know your maman and her heretic doctor.”
They drilled into Grand-mère’s skull again for a disease they call hysteria. The hole was supposed to let out evil spirits, but the gruesome treatment hasn’t stopped her sniffing every book, pillow, and candle, trying to capture its essence, agitated that her sense of smell has disappeared.
“This is how you know you are alive, Barbe-Nicole.” She taps her nose frantically. “The aromas of brioche fresh from the oven, lavender water ironed into your clothes, your father’s pipe smoke. You must understand. Time is running out.” Her fingernails claw my arm, the whale oil lamp sputtering and smoking in her other hand.
“Let me lead.” Taking the stinking lantern, I let her grip my shoulders from behind. Grand-mère shrunk so much, she’s my height of five feet, though she’s a step above. For as long as I remember, she has tried to justify my worst fault. My cursed proboscis, as Maman calls my over-sensitive nose, has been a battle between us since I was little. I remember walking with her through town, avoiding chamber pots dumped from windows, horse excrement paving the roads, and factories belching black gases. Excruciating pain surged to my nose, making my eyes water and sending me into sneezing fits. Maman left me standing alone on the street.
From then on, my sense of smell swelled beyond reason. Mostly ordinary odors, but sometimes I imagine I can smell the stink of a lie. Or the perfume of a pure heart. Or the heartbreaking smell of what could have been.
Maman complains my cursed sense of smell makes me too particular, too demanding, and frankly, too peculiar. Decidedly troublesome traits for a daughter she’s tried to marry off since I was sixteen. But why must the suitors she picks have to smell so bad?
Grand-mère squeezes my shoulder. “It is not your fault you are the way you are, Barbe-Nicole; it’s a gift.” She chirped this over and over this afternoon until Maman threatened to have the doctor drill her skull again.
The lantern casts ghoulish shadows on the chalk walls as my bare toes reach for the next stair and the next. I’ll have hell to pay if we’re caught down here. Part of me came tonight to humor Grand-mère, but part of me craves more time with her. I’ve witnessed her tremors, her shuffling feet, her crazy obsessions, which now seem to focus on my nose.
As we descend, the dank air chills my legs; feathery chalk dust makes my feet slip on the steps. The Romans excavated these chalk quarries a thousand years ago, creating a sprawling web of crayères under our ancient town of Reims. What exactly does Grand-mère have in mind bringing me down here? The lantern throws a halo on grape clusters laying on the rough-hewn table.
Ah, she wants to play her sniffing game.
“How did you set this up?” My toes recoil from cold puddles of spring water.
“I’m not dead yet,” she croaks. Taking off her fringed bed shawl, she ties it like a blindfold over my eyes. “Don’t peek.”
“Wouldn’t dare.” I lift a corner of the shawl, and she raps my fingers like the nuns at St.-Pierre-Les-Dames where Maman sent me to school before the Revolution shut down convents.
“Quit lollygagging and breathe deep.” Grand-mère’s knobby fingertips knead below my cheekbones, opening my nasal passages to the mineral smell of chalk, pristine groundwater, oak barrels, the purple aroma of fermenting wine.
But these profound smells can’t stop me fretting about Maman’s determination to marry me off before the year is out. I told her I’d only marry a suitor that smells like springtime. “Men do not smell like that,” she scolded.
But men do. Or one did, anyway. He was conscribed to war several years ago, so he probably doesn’t smell like springtime anymore. His green-sprout smell ruined me for anyone else.
Grand-mère places a bunch of grapes in my hands and brings it to my nose. “What comes to you?”
“The grapes smell like ripening pears and a hint of Hawthorne berry.”
She chortles and replaces the grapes with another bunch. “What about these?”
Drawing the aroma into the top of my palate, I picture gypsies around a campfire, smoky, deep, and complex. “Grilled toast and coffee.”
Her next handful of grapes are sticky and soft, the aroma so robust and delicious, my tongue longs for a taste. “Smells like chocolate-covered cherries.”
Grand-mère wheezes with a rasp and rattle that scares me.
I yank off the blindfold. “Grand-mère?”
“You’re ready.” She slides me a wooden box carved with vineyards and women carrying baskets of grapes on their heads. “Open it.”
Inside lays a gold tastevin, a wine-tasting cup on a long, heavy neck chain.
“Your great Grand-père, Nicolas Ruinart, used this cup to taste wine with the monks at Hautvillers Abbey. Just by smelling the grapes, he could tell you the slope of the hill on which they grew, the exposure to the sun, the minerals in the soil.” She closes her papery eyelids and inhales. “He’d lift his nose to the west and smell the ocean.” She turns. “He’d smell German bratwurst to the northeast.” Her head swivels. “To the south, the perfume of lavender fields in Provence.” Her snaggletooth protrudes when she smiles. “Your great Grand-père was Le Nez.” The Nose. “He passed down his precious gift to you.”
Here she goes again with her crazy notions. “Maman says Le Nez is a curse.”
Grand-mère clucks her tongue. “Your maman didn’t inherit Le Nez, so she doesn’t understand it. It’s a rare and precious gift, smelling the hidden essence of things. I took it for granted, and now it’s gone.” Her wrinkled hand picks up the gold tastevin and christens my nose.
A prickling clusters in my sinuses like a powerful sneeze that won’t release. I wish there were truth to Grand-mère’s ramblings; it would explain so much about my finicky nature.
“You are Le Nez, Barbe-Nicole.” She lifts the chain over my head, and the cup nestles above my breasts. “You must carry on Grand-père Ruinart’s gift.”
“Why haven’t you told me about this until now?”
“Your maman forbid it.” She wags her finger. “But I’m taking matters into my own hands before I die.”
I feel an etching on the bottom of the cup. “Is this an anchor?”
“Ah, yes, the anchor. The anchor symbolizes clarity and courage during chaos and confusion.”
“Chaos and confusion?” Now I know the story is a delusion. “Aren’t those your cat’s names?”
“I have cats?” She stares vacantly into the beyond, and her eerie, foreboding voice echoes through the chamber. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Holding her bandaged head, Grand-mère keens incoherently. The lantern casts her monstrous shadow on the crayère wall; her tasting game has become a nightmare.
“Let’s get you back to your room.” I try to walk her to the stairs, but her legs give out. Lifting her bird-like body in my arms, I carry her as she carried me as a child, trying not to topple over into the crayère.
“Promise you’ll carry on Le Nez,” she says, exhaling sentir le sapin, the smell of fir coffins.
My dear Grand-mère is dying in my arms. Now I know Le Nez is a curse.
“Promise me.” Her eyelids flutter and close.
“I won’t let you down, Grand-mère,” I whisper. She feels suddenly light in my arms, but the gold tastevin feels heavy, so very heavy, around my neck.
PraiseCHAMPAGNE WIDOWS awarded 2022 EDITOR’S CHOICE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY! "Barbe-Nicole is a strong, determined woman, who defies Napoleon to make her winery a success. Fascinating details about winemaking: soil, climate, barrels, bottles, and the various grapes. All this and more affect the smell and flavor of the wine. I could smell the wine along with Barbe-Nicole, since Rosenberg's descriptions are so vivid. The narrative is interspersed with brief scenes about the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the Red Man, a devil figure disguised as a coachman, who encourages him to conquer Europe. The most moving parts are where Barbe-Nicole harvests grapes along with other women widowed by Napoleon's wars." ~ HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY EDITOR'S CHOICE
“This effervescent historical novel paints a richly detailed portrait of the enterprising Veuve Clicquot. The twinned plots of Clicquot and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall are filled with detail that give life to this far-off time. The prose is light, yet detailed, and peppered with moments of wry humor. Napoleon's characterization is well-crafted and give his character new life. Clicquot’s character is charming, and readers will love getting to know her. Rosenberg has a superb eye for blending humor with drama.” ~Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize
"Barbe-Nicole is captivating, particularly with her inheritance of "Le Nez" and the effect on her life. From grapes to pigs, the adventures she gets into with her nose are fascinating and are described in detailed and engaging ways. The champagne empire she builds is admirable, as is her relationship with Francois and its challenges. ~ WRITER'S DIGEST 2022
"For anyone who loves champagne, a must-read novel about Veuve Clicquot." ~ Judithe Little, best-selling author of The Chanel Sisters
"These first known women of Champagne/Sparkling winemaking may not have even realized how strong they were until they had to learn and do it all to survive for themselves and their wineries! Reading Champagne Widows makes it even more of an honor to learn a craft still dominated by men." ~ Penny Gadd-Coster, Executive Director of Winemaking, Rack & Riddle
"The sun-drenched vineyards of France, a real-life heroine who against all odds refuses to give up her dreams... and champagne. What's not to love? And that's just what Rebecca Rosenberg delivers in Champagne Widows. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was a woman ahead of her time, a fascinating blend of ingenuity, heart, and sheer tenacity, with a nose for wine and a head for business. A 19th century widow who built an empire as war raged all around her. Note: This richly woven tale is best savored slowly, though with all delicious things, it won't be easy." ~ Barbara Davis, best-selling author of The Last of the Moon Girls
"Champagne Widows is a witty, accomplished novel, featuring a tough and charming heroine of the first order. One can't help but root for Barbe-Nicole, an astute businesswoman who brilliantly holds her own against none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the events unfold two centuries ago, the story feels so modern, the characters could be your friends and neighbors. As easy to love as a glass of Veuve Clicquot, this may be Rebecca Rosenberg's best book yet." ~ Michelle Richmond, best-selling author of The Marriage Pact
"Champagne Widows is an inspired story based on the real-life Grande Dame of Champagne, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who built her famous champagne empire amidst the turbulence of 19th century France. Barbe-Nicole is my kind of heroine: a woman with passion, courage, family loyalty, and a killer business sense. Rebecca Rosenberg's sensual details make every scene of this intimate novel come alive. A true reading pleasure!" ~ Martha Conway, best-selling author of The Underground River and The Physician's Daughter
"Award-winning author, Rebecca Rosenberg returns with another Historical Fiction jewel in CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS. Meet the women who succeeded in creating world class champagne in a time men ruled business and society. Lovers of history, romance, and French culture will relish the multi-layered plot and cast of characters including the ultimate French icon, Napoleon Bonaparte." ~ Johnnie Bernhard, award-winning author of Sisters of the Undertow
"An epic story featuring love, family, and the sustaining power of courage. Champagne Widows takes the reader back in time for an intimate look at the building of the iconic brand Veuve Clicquot. In the aftermath of Napoleon's rise to power, Barbe-Nicole and her husband Francois share a vision of creating a champagne that will astound the world. Despite war, death, blockades, and failed harvests, Barbe-Nicole ultimately succeeds." ~ M.K. Tod, author of Paris In Ruins and award-winning blog A Writer of History
"Raise a glass to Veuve Clicquot and all the women from history to the present, who have broken the mold and overcome obstacles to succeed in all-male professions. Just as a champagne bottle pops bringing delectable flavors and delicious aromas, Rebecca Rosenberg delights the senses with her engrossing novel. She treats the reader to a perfect blend of history and story - with lots of champagne! Sit back and savor the tale of Veuve Clicquot. " ~ Linda Rosen, author of Sisters of the Vine
"Rebecca Rosenberg has penned a spectacular saga about the first "Champagne widow" of France, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot. With her gift, known as Le Nez (the nose), Barbe-Nicole can "smell the stink of a lie or the perfume of a pure heart. Or the heartbreaking smell of what could have been." Along with her expertise, she possesses courage and vision, overcoming incredible odds during the time of the Napoleonic Code, which left widows without property rights—in Barbe-Nicole's case, her Champagne business. Seamlessly interwoven with historical letters from Napoleon, the book sweeps the reader into the early nineteenth-century world. But it's her imaginative tale of Veuve Clicquot's personal life that captured me and wouldn't let go until the end, leaving me wanting more!" ~ Susan Cushman, author of John and Mary Margaret
"An independent woman of indomitable strength, determined to find her way in a man's world. Champagne Widows is vintage storytelling." ~ Jean M. Roberts, author of The Heron
"Rebecca Rosenberg transforms history into literary art. Her prose sparkles, bringing centuries-old characters to life with wit, heart and bon mots. Treat yourself to Champagne Widows, and marvel at Rosenberg's gift for making every sense sing." ~ Carol Van Den Hende, award-winning author of Goodbye, Orchid
"Like the best wines, Rosenberg's Champagne Widows will entice you with its complexity as it balances the story of a widow's determination to produce the world's greatest champagne in the face of Napoleon's path of destruction. If you love France, historical fiction, underdog stories, strong women, or wine, then pop a cork to celebrate this perfect blend of a novel." ~ Mary Helen Sheriff, author of Boop and Eve's Road Trip
About the Author
For more information, please visit Rebecca's website and blog. You can also find her on Amazon, BookBub, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.
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Thank you for featuring a CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS excerpt! I appreciate your fabulous blog featuring a woman's perspective! For notice of my upcoming novels please join my mailing list https://www.rebecca-rosenberg.comReplyDelete