Opinion: Novum and out

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Drinks: Wines
Other: Business, Opinion

So that’s it then – Novum and out.

It was announced last week that the small merchant is being bought by Hallgarten Druitt.

My first reaction is that it’s a shame. Novum won Small Merchant of the Year in last year’s Sommelier Wine Awards, thanks to a large number of genuinely characterful Gold Medal winning wines.  Now they’re gone.

This is not to denigrate Hallgarten, incidentally. They’ve got some good stuff as well – and also did well in last year’s SWA. But there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re losing a company that epitomises much of what makes wine interesting.

But though it’s a shame, it’s not, frankly, a huge surprise. We might have started a new year, but the economic problems rumble on, and we all know that more importers, bars and restaurants will go bust before summer time. There had been rumours for most of 2009 that Novum was struggling.

It was always an ambitious idea. Steve Daniel is the definition of a wine maverick: the man who brought a selection of Greek wines to Oddbins, he was never going to have a safe list stuffed with Chablis and Rioja. So, no surprise that while Novum had plenty of good producers they were mostly of the ‘I’d quite like to stock that – it’s interesting’ rather than ‘must-have, I’ll sell loads’ variety.

For Novum, it was always more about the wine than the balance sheet – an attitude that won it admiration from sommeliers, but didn’t always translate into contracts.

The trouble is that it was, in effect, supplying a niche of a niche: relying on similarly maverick sommeliers who didn’t mind a bit of hand-selling and had room for great wines at prices some way north of house wine.

More than HBJ, more than Paragon, Novum is a victim of the recession. When the economy was booming, it could fly. Just.

But the last 18 months have seen restaurants chop both their lists and the number of suppliers. There isn’t, sadly, much room for poetry in the on-trade at the moment, and Novum has always been more cavalier than roundhead…

If ever you wanted proof of the new hard-nosed reality – that it’s business first and wine second – then this is it…

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