Interview with Sunny Hodge – Diogenes The Dog

Here we focus on opening dialogues to conversations which is why I think we rock the wine world!!

They say if you want to get to know London, then you need to do it by foot. One of the good things that came out of my daily walks during lockdown was the discovery of Diogenes The Dog, a little gem I discovered several minutes away from where I live in South London. 

Diogenes The Dog is a Wine Bar and Shop which opened around a year and a half ago.  Wanting to help and promote smaller and local business during the lockdown period, I volunteered to produce some images of Diogenes The Dog and was grateful to spend some time with the owner Sunny Hodge to learn more about the business and concept.

Myself sampling a Slovakian wine

Diogenes The Dog is cosy, friendly and down to earth and is unique in the wine world, due to it’s concept and type of wines sold. Hospitality and service experience is at the forefront of this business and is of extreme importance. This definitely comes across when speaking with Sunny Hodge, who is passionate about wine and seeks to ensure people have the knowledge and awareness of what they are drinking.  He recommended a Slovakian wine for me to try which was something I had never tried before.  Smooth and full of flavour I was not disappointed in his recommendation and it would be a wine that I would definitely try again.

Below, Sonny Hodge explains further about the concept behind Diogenes The Dog and what makes the business and the wines they sell uniquely special within the UK wine industry.  

What is Diogenes The Dog and what sets you apart?

The philosopher, Diogenes The Dog was the original cynic, and the brand was built around his ethos of challenging in thinking. Cynicism back in the day was about questioning such things as the environment, politics, people, philosophers etc. We wanted to do the same and question the wine world.

I find the wine world to be very old school. There are many people who spend a lot of money on fancy wine and most people who consume wine know nothing about it. As consumers we do not do this with food. You would not spend a fortune on good food, if you did not know anything about it. You would not buy an expensive rum or whisky if you had no understanding of it. However, with wine this happens on a daily basis. Most wine shops and bars rely on the swankiness as a product, and then people happen to buy whatever wine is on their list. But here it is the other way round.

The idea of Diogenes The Dog as a wine bar is to challenge the wine industry. The intention is also to help people understand wine, with an educational purpose without being preachy. The only way to do this is to take everything that people know and love away, so that they are forced to learn and understand something new.  At Diogenes The Dog, it is all about what is on the menu and the focus is on the process of learning.  Wine bars and shops have never been set up in this fashion before. There is nothing familiar or that you would find on a normal wine list such as prosecco or chianti.  Here we focus on opening dialogues to conversations which is why I think we rock the wine world!!

We have won a lot of awards during our first 6 months and have had amazing press. Diogenes The Dog was a revolutionary concept in the wine world.  What sets us apart is our concept, the wine, and the delivery of the service. To go to a place where you do not know anything, could be quite shocking and intimidating for some people especially within the wine world.  However, the approach we have taken is to introduce people in a soft way and that’s where true hospitality comes in. When you take someone who is frightened and knows nothing about wine, and then educate and ensure they leave with an amazing experience, this is where true hospitality lies. That is unique!

Before the pandemic and when we were functioning as a bar, our cliental was split by half local customers and half from other areas of London.  People would come from all over the UK on Friday and Saturday nights and weekdays would see more local cliental.

We had got to a point where people visiting London on the weekends would spend their evenings with us.  Some would fly into London and find us by google searching for a nice wine bar. They would spend their evening with us and fly off again the next day.

What type of wine can we expect to find on the menu?

We sell undiscovered wines that focuses on new regions. For example, we have wines from China, Poland, Slovakia and Texas. A lot of the wines we sell you would not find anywhere else in the UK. Our menu changes weekly at the moment and we have roughly about 38 wines on the menu. This is very small for a wine list, however if it was bigger our concept would be diluted.

The idea with Diogenes is all about rotating. If you came in this week and then came back a month later, you would see different wines on the menu. This is great for the concept as you need to converse and learn about a different wine every time you come here. If your favourite wine were always on the menu, the concept would be lost because you would always order your favourite and there would not be any need for dialogue.

The rarest wine on the menu that you would not find in the UK, would be a sweet Polish wine which relies on a fungus on grapes. This is a rare production technique that nobody knew they could do in Poland. We are the only people selling it in the UK, however I know it is sold in Germany and therefore only rare to the UK.  

What influences your choice for the wine list?

The concept comes first. Our wines need to be a wine from a new region that not many people would have heard about. As mentioned, we have wines from unique places including Bulgaria, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Alternatively, our wine may also come from a more well-established region, where someone is doing something completely different that would not be expected from them. It is all about people not following the norm but challenging the environment around them, this would be the key driver.  

Next thing to consider would also be the cost. The wines on our menu must be stunning at their price point because they are the underdogs and they need to prove their worth.  As a consumer you would not spend for example, £120 on a Chinese wine that you knew nothing about.  However, if it was a wine or champagne from a familiar brand name, then you may spend this amount because of the established reputation.  Therefore, our wines cannot be as expensive as champagne for example and must be set at a good price point.  We have to import a lot of the wine list in order to fit the criteria of cost and concept. Cutting out all the middle men enables us to sell our wine list for a lower cost.

With such a unique wine list, how do you ensure you have a knowledgeable team?

Apart from myself we have a team of four people.  We have always had a small team even before the Pandemic, which I prefer.  With the expectations of knowledge within the team being high, the bigger the team gets, the harder to ensure everyone is on top of their game. We have a regimented and solid training structure and tests which need to be completed to be able to sell wine. With our concept you need to be able to guide a guest through an experience and understand the science behind the wine and where the flavours come from. The way we talk about wine does not exist in traditional wine qualifications and is a brand-new concept. Therefore, we must teach people that join our team what our model of wine training is, because they would not have been taught this style from anywhere else. 

How have you adapted the business during lockdown?

After Boris announced the closure of hospitality, the very next day we opened as a shop and launched a Phone Sommelier Service. This gave our guests the opportunity to have interpersonal time to speak to someone about wine and still worked with our concept. It was popular at the beginning and in the first 3 weeks of lockdown helped to save the business. As a PR tool it worked well, as no one had really done anything like this before. It was noticed by the big channels such as the Evening Standard and Time Out Magazine and people also in the food and wine world looked at it favourably. This helped us a brand to show we were still here and doing something during the Pandemic. We launched our online shop a month into lockdown. More current adaptation includes a new arrangement for the bar with social distancing measures in place and a new till set up.

Do you plan to open any further wine bars in the future?

Before the Covid – 19 Pandemic, I wanted to set up a new concept somewhere else in London. Of course, this was put on hold and I will have to wait and see what happens in the next couple of months.  However, colleagues of mine in the restaurant industry are thinking of doing the same and I believe the market is in a good place to be tying down long leases.  If I were to open something new, it would be under a different name and different concept but still wine related. It would be something quite different to Diogenes The Dog. I think that projects should stand on their own feet and I would not want to become a chain as it would not be in keeping in what we do.

To learn more why not visit the website of Diogenes The Dog



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