With a laser focused vision Sunny Hodge is determined to shake up the London wine scene. He has set the bar high, wanting to turn a former pub in Elephant and Castle into one of London’s top destination wine bars and after just a few weeks open he believes he is on the right track.
The son of an Olympian and commonwealth games silver medalist and a graduate of Mechanical Engineering he has a contrarian vision just like Diognes, a Greek cynic who inspired the name of the wine bar. “I want Diogenes The Dog to be a place where people come to try something new and different and that they cannot try anywhere else, a place that will attract wine drinkers, wine suppliers, winemakers and that gives you a unique wine experience and a truly unique evening,” Sunny told Food and Wine Gazette when we met him at the newly opened wine bar and shop.
His objective is to turn the spot he shaped with his own bare hands from a dodgy boozer in Elephant and Castle into one of the top 5 wine bars in London in the coming months. The name is inspired by Diogenes, a Greek master of Philosophy who was no ordinary wise old man of Ancient Greece but who was one of the cynic philosophers, Sunny wants to challenge what people know about wine, discarding common trends and bringing to the table lesser known wines.
Sunny is serving wines that are off the beaten track. There is one thing in common about the wines that are served and sold at Diogenes The Dog. They go against the grain. “They are wines where the winemaker is going against the norms. They may be doing something which is completely different to their appelation. All the wines on the list are wines that are not common, that reflect a certain element of risk that the winemaker is taking. It is my responsibly to ensure that the wines are phenomenal. I don’t want to have a wine which clients don’t enjoy or which does not reflect the quality of the place it is from.” he said.
The list in the wine bar and wine shop may be small but he promises that all wines will blow you away. “The wines have different styles but in each style there is something that when one drinks the wine, they will say Oh my God, this is amazing. So far we have done a good job and that means we have been selective,” Sunny said.
He also believes the choice of location has been spot on. “I did not want to set up a wine bar in somewhere super trendy like Hackney, Shoreditch or Brixton. You may get clientele who would be really interested in such a concept but you will also be swamped by hipsters who might come because it is cool and nice and not because they want to necessarily enjoy what’s on offer. I knew that this area had nothing of this ilk. This is a completely new type of bar for Elephant and Castle. The area had never had something like this on their doorstep. I thought that if the wines are risky and the concept is a bit edgy, this is the perfect spot to try it out because they do not have anything else of this sort,” he said.
Sunny fell in love with the place when he saw it. He loved the fact that it was on two floors which would enable him to organise Jazz nights in the basement. “I loved the facade and the timber beams in the basement. This is not something that you find in many pubs in London. And if you do, they are either ridiculously pricey or else they are full of problems. This place had problems but there were all issues that I could fix,” he said.
He is not new to restaurant openings. He used to do it as his job opening restaurants with service as a clear focus. “I wanted to set up a wine bar not because I always dreamed of it but because I saw a massive gap in wine in London and in Europe,” he said.
“Wine lists tend to be the same, they all have the same sections. You would think that with London being the centre of food and wine, wine lists would be different but in reality the lists are all the same. I think there is no reason why you cannot have something different but I think that suppliers don’t want to take a risk with large quantities of something that will not sell. This meant that wines which were off the beaten track might be on a wine list in a Michelin star restaurant but they would be on a 1000 bottle wine list. These wines don’t really sell when they form part of such a wine list.”
“My approach, which is maybe more risky, is to set something like this where you only have a small amount of unqiue, interesting but hard wines and you hope that you get the people in who will consume the wines and therefore help you to bring new wines in. If you have a list of wines that are 50% safe and half with unsafe wines, people will opt for the safe stuff meaning that the people will not go for what is ‘unsafe’. It will end up sitting there and you will not even by able to sell it by the glass,” he said.
“My focus therefore has been of concentrate on a small list of completely new wines, regions and old winemakers that are doing completely new things taking high risks because of the passion they have, thinking outside the box and doing something different from what had been done before,” Sunny said.
He mentions a winemaker in Champagne who creates wines that are not champagne. “We all know what the land costs in champagne and to not produce Champagne could mean you are either a bit crazy or an idiot because you might never be able to recoup your investment. This is therefore a massive risk that a winemaker takes. The same can be said for a winemaker growing tempranillo in Tuscany. They are growing something that is completely different and they want to test themselves and to show what the land can do and not necessarily what the region is good at. There is a certain pride about testing your abilities of making wine and doing something completely different.”
While Sunny appreciates the importance of story telling it is not an aspect of wine he is particularly fond of. “Stories sell wine more than the wine sells the wine. I want the focus to be on what is in the glass. Stories are a beautiful art but they are not my focus. I am more focused on why a wine is the way it is, why it tastes this way and the process and technical aspects of making the wine. All the regions have stories to tell. For example we have wines from Texas which is something that is very rare to find so we get questions about the terroir, the blend, the grape varieties and this is what I prefer,” he said.
Sunny chooses the wines mainly by going to the wineries. “So far we are importing around 40 per cent of the wines but in time we want to get to 100 per cent. I selected the wines from Texas on a road trip from Houston to Colorado. I knew nothing about the wines and the only one to get to know the wines is not from a book but by actually going there. We choose the wines from Poland through contacts with sommeliers. We had three wineries and we picked the winery with which we could communicate the best. The wines we chose from Portugal also came from a trip to Porto.
Sunny has had a lot of experience with restaurant openings but nothing prepared him for what was in store for his project. “Time of course is an issue. For the past 2-3 months, I have been working from 7am till 1am seven days a week with my girlfriend’s father because every single minute matters. When we were not dealing with solicitors or landlords we were working on the winebar. It was overwhelming because every minute is important but at the end, you forget about the normal stresses,” he said.
He had to play it by ear but was fortunate that the interior designer, Paolina, was his girlfriend so if they are caught by surprise they would talk things through and the issue would be resolved within 5 to 6 hours rather than having to go back and forth to an interior design company. “There were lots of surprises. We did not know how the bricks would look like when they were exposed, we had no telephone lines, no water, no internet. There were a huge number of things that went wrong but we managed to open on time.” he said.
The wine bar and shop has been open for 16 days when I met Sunny a few days ago and he tells me that the evolution has been weird. “When we started works and no one could tell what the place was going to be, when there was no writing on the windows, everyone was knocking on the door and asking what the place was going to be. They asked me if it was going to be a boozer and when I would say it was going to be a wine bar and they would be genuinely disappointed. They asked me whether we would be serving beer and when I sad no, they would be genuinely angry and upset.”
“But as the wine racks starting coming up and we put the logo, people could see the direction it was going. Now, we had new people knocking on the door. They were asking when we would open, what type of wines we were going to sell. They were genuinely really interesting. This happened over the space of four weeks.”
“People became excited about the opening. We discovered there are loads of foodies in the area and they asked about events in the cellar. The interest completely changed. Now that we are open, I think I had a surprisingly better welcome than I would have imagined,” he said.
Sunny said that many customers are ordering wines by the glass and moving from one wine to the other. “I didn’t think we would get there so quickly but it has happened from pretty much the first week.”
Does that put pressure to introduce new wines, I ask? “I would not call it pressure. This is exactly what I want to do. It takes a lot of pressure off as I know that I have to change wines and it is good that you change not for the sake of changing wines but because wines have been sold.”
He said that the wine menu has already changed four times in 15 days because wines sell out. “All the interesting wines are selling and the safe wines, because we do have some safe wines (not safe in concept but safe in style) and these have not moved. This can really open the floodgates of wines and keep my team of sommeliers from getting bored.
Sunny aim is to have a second or a third wine bar in London within the next five years. “It would be important to widen the distribution but I do not want to have more than 3 sites. They do not need to be connected by name or in style,” he said though he is conscious of the fact that this would help his economies of scale.
All of the wines are available to buy to take home and hungry hounds can mop up the alcohol with charcuterie from Cannon and Cannon.
Address: Diogenes The Dog: 96 Rodney Road, London