For this issue, Lucy Britner sat down with the entrepreneurial force that is Amanda Thomson, the CEO and founder of B Corp-certified Thomson & Scott, maker of Noughty alcohol-free wine
Amanda Thomson did one of the first interviews with Oasis. It was 1994, the year they released debut album Definitely Maybe, and they were playing at Sheffield’s famous Leadmill. Before a career in drinks, Thomson embarked on a path as an arts broadcaster on national TV and radio, though she eventually swapped Champagne Supernova for plain old Champagne.
Raised on a plant-based, no-sugar diet by her health-conscious mother, Thomson’s interest in what’s in her food and her love of wine – and her desire for a career change – took her to Paris where she studied wine at Le Cordon Bleu school. It was a meeting with winemaker Alexandre Penet that inspired Thomson to further explore the possibilities of making quality low or no-dosage Champagne and Prosecco, which she did early on at her business Thomson & Scott.
Now, though, she has transitioned away from alcohol altogether, and Thomson is known for the Noughty brand. The alcohol-free wine range is available in several export markets including the US, Canada, Japan and Sweden.
Looking specifically at UK retail, Thomson says the brand has done more than £1 million in sales during the past year (IRI). She reports 50% year-on-year growth in retail and a doubling of distribution points.
She also tells DR that the repeat purchase rate is “over 50%”. Most importantly, her ambitions go way beyond the relatively small alcohol-free market. “We have recognised that there’s such a fascinating opportunity to shift lifestyles, but without being sanctimonious, which for me is living the dream,” she says.
“And particularly with my focus, which is complete integration into the traditional wine industry, as opposed to being a sort of adjunct.
“We love the non-alcoholic crowd, and they love us, and that’s wonderful, but I have a much bigger vision. I see our brand in the wine industry.”
The first bottle of Noughty launched in 2019, just before the pandemic. “I don’t see any competition. We’re very singular,” says Thomson. “What I’m starting to see, which I’m very excited about, is people pushing quality on the non-alcoholic side.
“A lot of brands have come in with a marketing-led approach, which frustrates me. It’s not helpful for their longevity, or the longevity of the opportunity.
“Focus on liquid first and marketing after that. I fear a lot of people think that there is a quick buck to be made. Actually, the opposite is true.”
For Thomson, making a decent alcohol-free wine is about finding balance “without chucking in a tonne of sugar, which is the fast, cheap way to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine palatable”.
“I think the step that most people have been missing out to start with is making a good alcoholic wine before you even think about the dealcoholisation process.”
We’re drinking Noughty Rosé, made with organic Tempranillo from La Mancha in Spain. Thomson also works with a German winemaker on the dealcoholisation process. “It was my buzz when I trained to work with the makers. I used to spend huge amounts of time in the cellar.”
Not only is Thomson founder of Thomson & Scott, she’s also a founding member of the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association. She has been celebrated for her vision and entrepreneurship in numerous lists and publications. But her success hasn’t come without hurdles.
“I’ve spent my life working with challenging people and surprising them. I guess I learned very quickly as an ex-journalist that criticism is something to analyse and say: ‘Is it relevant? Where’s it coming from – a good place, or is it coming from a place where you’re not embracing innovation?’ I think I’ve probably developed quite a thick skin, which has stood me in very good stead for the drinks industry, which I have to say is brutal at times.”
Thomson loves fine wine, and she prides herself on having a talent for tasting – she even calls blind tasting a “sport”. And if her alcohol-free ambitions are met with adversity, she’s happy to line up a blind tasting. “If you want to change the world and do something innovative, you have to get over the fact that a huge amount of people will be negative and that’s just a given, because people don’t like change.”
She’s also keen to learn from other markets and when we meet, Thomson is just back from a work trip to Chicago. She says the UK industry could learn a lot from America. “They are more open-minded and used to innovation,” she says. “They are also used to paying for quality in a way that we sadly have not always been in this country.
“It goes back to my point about ingredients. If we want to pay these low prices – exactly like processed food – how do you trick up cheap wine? With sugar and chemicals. It’s not brain surgery. If you’re going to stop drinking as much alcohol and then drink a tonne of sugary liquid, you could argue it’s replacing one bad habit with another.
“Premiumisation is the way forward.” This goes hand-in-hand with getting the right listings. Thomson talks about working with the likes of Waitrose, as well as Majestic, Sainsbury’s and Ocado.
“We are constantly talking to other supermarkets and making decisions as to what may or may not be the best route. I think sometimes the choices you make not to be in places, when you’re growing a brand, are more important than a quick sales win.”
Testament to her ambition for the brand to be integrated into the wine industry, Thomson says she’s playing around with different grape varieties and currently working on a Bordeaux blend. She’s also eager to be “blown away” by a competitor.
“Once someone blows me away, I can hopefully raise them one. I’m hugely competitive,” she says. Her global ambition is that Noughty will become the US and UK’s leading premium non-alcoholic wine – and always asked for by name. Will she get there, maybe? Definitely.