What was your background before getting into wine?
After university, I worked as a journalist and then in TV and radio for BBC Arts Broadcasting, working on film, fashion, music, art. I used to get to the Cannes film festival and there was a lot of Champagne. We’d just sit down with stars like Johnny Depp, and have a chat. Anyway, as a journalist I developed a love of fine wine without having to pay for it.
At what point did you transition to being an entrepreneur?
I grew up with a single mother who was a health food entrepreneur. Not in a fashionable sense. We were struggling for cash. To put food on the table, she used to make muesli usually in the shed and deliver it on a bicycle
I could see that the way show business was being covered was changing and romanticised creating my own Champagne. As a journalist, my natural disposition was to consult the expert, so I called the late Gerard Basset, Meilleur Sommelier du Monde. He was encouraging and really charming. We worked out that the WSET wasn’t for me, so my daughter and my son and my husband – a PR consultant in the film and TV world – and I moved to Paris for a year, for me to study at the Cordon Bleu school’s first Wine and Management Diploma class. I knew I wanted to do something in wine. I wasn’t certain what.
What was your project?
While at the Cordon Bleu I became really interested in the idea of a perfect, no-dosage Champagne. In 2013, I came back to London and started Thomson & Scott as a brand of sugar-free sparkling Champagne and Prosecco.
How did the brand get to be called Thomson & Scott?
I wanted a heritage feel to the brand, but it was just me [alone]. We did well and became famous for having the best dry Prosecco brand in the UK. We got into five-star hotels. Champagne was tougher – there were a lot of people doing it, but we could have scaled up.
"If I could persuade people to drink something delicious and alcohol free, then I’m really changing the world."
And how did you switch from sugar-free to alcohol-free?
There are lots of things I’m not good at. And two things I am. I’m good at taste, and I’m a visionary and the visionary part of me was like ‘This is not changing the world. I need to make the world a better place’. It’s a bit American, I know. But I had a very specific vision. Cutting sugar out of wine and spotlighting that was helpful for health. But if I could persuade people to drink something delicious and alcohol free, then I’m really changing the world.
When did you make the switch?
In autumn 2019, just pre pandemic, I launched consecutively in Sydney, London and US. In the US we had a write-up in the New York Times, which means that everybody else was more hesitant about shooting you down. The game for me was, if you get the top, then I don’t mind what everybody else says. And of course, the market doesn’t mind.
How do you handle distribution?
We work state by state and it’s interesting because we’re actually not wine, so not subject to the three-tier-system. But we still work with drink distributors. In New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania we’ve chosen to go with VOS Selections who are a fine wine distributor who’ve been brilliant. In other states, we’ve chosen big wine and beverage distributors. What we always want is the right partner in the right market.
Everything’s run from here. I’ve got a small – 10 people – but very high-level team here. My model is that I’m obsessed with brilliant people. I know what I’m not good at, so I get people who are amazing at finance, strategy and sales. We’re bringing them in from all different businesses because you don’t get a huge amount of innovation in the wine world.
How do you work with other non-alcohol producers?
The non-alcohol market is an absolute mess. Hospitality and distributors and retail are all struggling to keep up and understand it. So it’s really up to us as the leading set of producers to shape that. So we formed the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association and I’m the only British founder. We’ve brought in all the thought leaders in the space and are doing the same now for the UK and EU.
Everyone’s talking about low- and no-. I’d say let’s talk about no-, because low- means nothing to me. It isn’t one category. You’ve actually got two or three categories within it. Of course, until 2018 no one had done a really good no-alcohol one. There were various ones on the market and none of them good.
So what was the key to your success?
Find a maker in South Africa who can make wine to my recipe. I’d prefer not to name them because we just had a few slippery customers try to go to the maker and rip off my recipe. Somebody doing own label for supermarket would love to do that.
And how did you build the brand?
It was led by social media and the right people talking about me: NBC in America, Vogue in the UK or the New York Times. And because we had such incredible consumer press, people go on to Google and look for it. That’s how algorithms work — you don’t have to spend a ton of money. People spend so much money on SEO. And I say “Well, if you’ve got a good story and you get it out there now, then you get to the top.” So, this week, Davina McCall, the TV celebrity fell in love with Noughty and we suddenly have 500 orders online in the space of an hour.
I was a journalist. I understand the media. If you’ve got something really exciting that no one’s ever done before, as long as you keep talking about it, eventually things happen.
Without being disparaging about the way wine sells itself in the UK, it’s very self-serving, and very non-innovative. I’ve been so successful because I’ve ripped up the rule book and I don’t do anything like anyone’s done before. And I wait for brilliant wine people to come to me when they’re interested. I admit that being married to a great publicist does help.
I think I think paying big retainers to big PR companies is not a good move for startups. If I were doing that model, I would agree a three-month period and I would lock down exactly what was happening each month.
"So I say to people “Do you like it? It’s good, and it’s got no alcohol” as opposed to “It’s got no alcohol. And it’s not bad” which is the way it has tend it to be done."
Are your customers the same people from market to market? Would the UK customers be the same as the Americans?
I thought the answer would be ‘no’. And ironically, it’s pretty much ‘yes’. How many of them are people who never drink alcohol? And how many of them are flexitarian? The beauty of the brand is we’re for everybody. The sober community is brilliant. They came on super-quickly. But actually, most of our clients drink. Most people flex around with it.
I’m also sometimes surprised at the way people approach branding in an almost negative way. So I say to people “Do you like it? It’s good, and it’s got no alcohol” as opposed to “It’s got no alcohol. And it’s not bad” which is the way it has tend it to be done.
And where are you selling it?
Over 40 countries. But in most, we’re seeding, so, I was recently in in Iceland where we got some lovely things going on. But we’re going in deep in the US. It’s a big, big opportunity. It’s a very marketing-hungry country where trends are built. We all know as Brits that it’s very easy to crash and burn in America. So one has to be very careful to choose the right partners and where one spends money and what your model is.
If one of our partners — that’s what we call our distributors — says we need to do a promo or to market here, we say, let’s talk about what you want and why you want it. And then we’ll go off and work out what works together. You never know what does and doesn’t build a brand.
The other beauty about my brand is it’s quite an easy sell. There’s no confusion. It’s alcohol- free wine, like alcohol-free beer. No one needs to explain it. But there’s still a lot of work to be done with education because it’s such a new category. It’s so future facing. Of course, you’re living the dream in retail if you’re in the alcohol section, but often that won’t happen. But some smart listings are now starting to put Noughty with the Champagne.
Let’s go back to the consumer. Who is she? Or he?
The brand plays right across. The sparkling demographics probably played out fairly similarly to Champagne. And now the red we’re launching is getting us a lot of men. We’re selling across ages too. So the young people shout a lot about us on social media, and then a lot of middle-aged and all demographics buy a lot of it. It’s a Noughty community and talking to them is an important part of your consumers and talking to them directly is important.
What sets Noughty apart?
When I said I could make the world a better place, it was a message that Americans love. Britain struggled a bit with it. It was like, “Gosh, she’s like going all religious and spiritual”. But I think any thought leader knows that the future of the world is not drinking, and alcohol is going the way of legislation on cigarettes whether we like it or not. The real big visionary thought-leaders, when I meet them, say “That’s a no brainer”.
I think the fact that we had our B Corp certification early… I think consumers just love that authenticity. And of course, you can’t build that and fake it. And the problem is, at the moment, so many brands trying to do that. And I think that that’s part of our secret sauce: profit, purpose and be cool.
"Any thought leader knows that the future of the world is not drinking, and alcohol is going the way of legislation on cigarettes whether we like it or not."
When did you become a B Corp?
We wanted it at the beginning. But it takes a long time so it was in 2020, I think. It’s holistic because it’s not only about what you do, but also the people who supply you. It’s very heavily involved and there’s a lot of pressure, mentally and literally. When you say we will do business not solely based on profit, but also ethics — if you’ve got outward investment, that’s a big undertaking, you know.
And that goes back to my goal, which is to be the world’s number one premium wine brand in alcohol free, but ultimately to make the world a healthier place. Because if we look at science and legislation, there’s no escaping the fact that an industry I love is causing us harm. And so there’s a there’s a bigger, more philanthropic piece for my brand’s existence.
Have you brought in different levels of investment over the time since you began?
Initially I had some angel investors. Sort of seed investment, in the no-sugar days, when I had alcohol. Not a huge amount. Maybe half a million pounds. Then I did a crowd-funding campaign and got £1.1m.
Would you recommend crowdfunding to other people?
If you want to get the crowd on your side it’s very democratic, and a much more egalitarian way to raise funds because women are equally or even more successful at crowdfunding, whereas in the traditional space it takes women a lot longer. I don’t know if I would do it again now, because I’ve already got seven people who want to invest, and we don’t need money.
You see, the other thing people underestimate about crowdfunding is that have you have to get the first 30- 40% on the table, and one could argue, if you can get that much, you might not need crowdfunding to find the rest. It worked for me and we did it strategically, but I think it’s quite a big conversation analysing whether it’s the best option. If it was right, I’d do it again. But I don’t need to.
Would you launch a non alcoholic vermouth?
I won’t be doing that. There’s no need for me to. I’ve got so much to do in the wine space.
You’ve used the expression 'thought leader' more than once. If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
I’ve got another business I want to do afterwards, but I don’t want to share that yet. The journey I’m on has made me think much bigger, which is what I wanted it to do.