For as much as the wine world buzzes about far-flung producers and maverick, up-and-coming winemakers, the average consumer rarely gets the chance to try these unconventional wines for themselves without making the trek to a devastatingly hip east London wine bar.
Sunny Hodge has plans to change that with his new venue Diogenes the Dog, a wine bar and retail outlet in Elephant & Castle, slated to open in early November.
‘The whole idea is to turn wine culture on its head,’ Hodge told Imbibe, so he chose Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and cynic, as the namesake of his project.
‘Diogenes was all about thinking about what you do and questioning it,’ he said. ‘Why am I constantly drinking the same stuff? Why do I find myself asking for prosecco all the time? Why do I want a Sauvignon Blanc?’
From running front of house at Covent Garden’s Margot as assistant restaurant manager and helping to open the recently Michelin-starred Fordwych Arms in Kent, Hodge has had ample opportunities to observe how wine lists can shape consumer tastes.
‘I found that no matter where you go – and not just in London, but in global wine culture – a wine list essentially has the same sort of stuff on it, because suppliers will only bring in what's gonna sell. I needed to bring new stuff in.’
To this end, Hodge has scouted out a variety of producers, regions and countries that are under-represented in the UK, crafting a list that offers high-quality esoteric wines rather than popular favourites. Sometimes this means that he’s had to bypass suppliers altogether – in fact, 40% of the wine list is imported directly from the vineyards.
Hodge connected with some of these winemakers, such as Winnica Turnau in Poland, through sommelier friends. Others involved more groundwork on his part – he even road-tripped through Texas on a motorcycle to visit the state’s wineries, finally deciding to include Messina Hofs’ Blanc du Bois on his list.
But he’s well aware that obscure wines can be intimidating for consumers. To mitigate this fear factor, he’s focused on creating a laidback, approachable environment where his team of somms can seamlessly interact with customers.
The 60-cover space, which used to be the Rose & Crown pub, is spread over two floors. Neither floor has a bar or till, because ‘staff can hide behind bars’ and Hodge wants ‘the staff to be as integrated as possible, with no divisions or boundaries’.
Upstairs, rustic wood, greenery and pendant lighting create an inviting atmosphere, with Hodge’s hand-made floor-to-ceiling wine racks as the pièce de résistance. Downstairs, the pub’s old beer cellar has been transformed into an intimate space with further seating for tastings and live performances.
Hodge sees each detail of the space, from the lights to the 375ml decanters, as contributing theatrical elements to the act of drinking wine and enhancing the experience. ‘Details like that add value to things that have not been valued,’ he commented. ‘It’s about giving worth and value back to these customers who are trying different wines and to these producers who are trying different [approaches to winemaking].’
His other strategy for turning customers on to little-known wines is to keep prices reasonable. By-the-glass offerings range from £5 to £14.
‘I'm in Elephant & Castle, not Knightsbridge or Mayfair. I want these wines to be super accessible,’ he explained. ‘I don't want this to be seen as an expensive place. I want people to come here because they can have a better quality of wine, get into new regions, open their minds about what they're drinking and why.’
By day, Diogenes the Dog will serve teas from the Rare Tea Company, coffee and pastries; by night, Cannon & Cannon cheeses and charcuterie will be available to order. Throughout the day and evening, Diogenes’ wines will be on offer for retail as well.
‘It's really about thinking, why are we drinking this [conventional] wine when we've got another one that's up and coming or better quality?’ he mused. ‘You won’t be able to get a glass of prosecco here. I hope that as much as we offend, we'll get as many people willing to give it a go.’
Diogenes the Dog opens 4 November.