‘Wine was always my weakness,’ says Sunny Hodge. You’d be forgiven for thinking the young wine-bar owner can’t get enough of the stuff. But that’s not what he means at all.
While working in front-of-house roles across the UK restaurant scene in his twenties, Hodge had a wine-knowledge gap – something he describes as ‘a glaring issue’. Like many, he found the subject perplexing. Now 34, he’s just opened his second wine bar in London, making it his mission to demystify the drink. Although, the fact he calls them a pair of ‘thinking bars’ and has given them ‘philosophy-inspired’ names might not hint at how he’s making wine more accessible.
The first bar was Diogenes the Dog, converted from an abandoned pub on the backstreets of Elephant and Castle in southeast London, and named after the Greek cynic. ‘Diogenes is about questioning wine and why we choose things we don’t really understand,’ says Hodge. The bar’s list by the glass showcases wine from obscure or rising regions including an Indian Chenin Blanc and a red blend from Wolverhampton. ‘Diogenes is helping people understand how wine works by taking away what they know and love,’ says Hodge.
It first opened in 2018, and then – like most venues – had to pivot for survival, becoming a grocery store and launching a wine delivery service; it now operates as a hybrid. ‘We sold more funky wines in lockdown,’ says Hodge. ‘Our customers were bored, like the rest of us.’
If Diogenes the Dog is about challenging perceptions of wine, bar number two, Aspen & Meursault is aiming to question the fundamentals of food and drink altogether. It takes the first part of its name from the Aspen tree, whose roots connect underground, making it one of the biggest living organisms (second only to a rare honey mushroom). The ‘Meursault’ part of the name has nothing to do with the Côte de Beaune, instead inspired by the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a man detached from the world around him. ‘It’s the juxtaposition of the awesomeness and connectivity of nature and the disconnection of mankind. We’re having to teach people about these wines, as they don’t know what they’re eating and drinking half the time,’ says Hodge.
Aspen & Meursault launched in the middle of 2021 in Battersea, southwest London, and pours wine from more recognisable regions – although Hodge tells me a consignment from Poland is due to arrive that very afternoon. It was another uninhabited pub that’s now been given a similarly stripped-back-yet-chic aesthetic, but it’s found in what Hodge describes as a ‘bougier’ part of town, known to many as ‘Nappy Valley’. That’s not a typo of the California wine region; the area has acted as something of a magnet for London’s young and affluent families in the last decade or so. Sure enough, as we chat in the bar, a cluster of new mums gathers in the light, plant-filled space, cooing over their babies more expressively the further through the house mulled wine they get. Of course, it’s not any old mulled wine, rather a natural mulled wine made from Aspen & Meursault’s own house blend.
Hundreds of years later, we’re still drinking wine and still, no one knows anything about it
Diogenes the Dog’s original premise came about not from a passion for drinking, but because Sunny Hodge felt the need to ‘find a solution to a problem’ – and his biggest bugbear at the time was wine. Working in restaurant service – at Argentinian steak chain Gaucho, as assistant manager at Covent Garden’s Margot and then as part of the launch team at the Michelin-starred Fordwich Arms in Kent – he admits that he didn’t know what a Left Bank or Right Bank Bordeaux even was. ‘Hundreds of years later, we’re still drinking wine and still, no one knows anything about it.’
What followed was an intense period of ‘around the clock’ study. ‘I couldn’t follow the traditional routes of learning. I did WSET Level 3 – but I did that to understand what everybody else is learning. Then I had to fill in all the gaps.’ He crammed books on neurology and the science behind flavour perception (he credits authors Gordon Shepherd, Mitchell Beazley and Nick Sharma for his ‘autodidactic learning’) and came to his own conclusion that, ‘what WSET teaches, is the opposite of the way people taste’.
Hodge was keen for this newly acquired knowledge to become a part of the service at his bars. ‘We talk about the wines very technically and open up dialogues,’ he says.
I never allow the team to start going into “BS” territory, which I think happens a lot in wine
‘I never allow the team to start going into “BS” territory, which I think happens a lot in wine,’ he adds, seemingly passionate to steer away from some of the stereotypes of wine speak handed down from bar to bar, or indeed, shared in the classroom. For a while, he was even trying to establish a course to rival that of WSET, although lockdowns have got in the way of those grand plans for now.
‘The more we talk about wine in that way, the less we learn about wine. The more we understand why this tastes so “green-appley” because of the natural malic acid; why your Merlots and Cabernets taste so peppery, because of the pyrazines… I know it’s very technical food talk, but the more we talk about it normally, the less smoke and mirrors there are.’
That’s all well and good, but what if customers have just dropped in for a casual drink? ‘It all fits into evolutionary theory – and you can’t go into that whole spiel at the table,’ he laughs. ‘But you can pick elements of it that you think someone might be engaged by.’
And what about them feeling intimidated by the scientific subject matter? ‘People are receptive to being talked to as an equal human being, regardless of what you’re talking about.’ says Hodge. ‘What we do focuses on honesty and knowledge, which automatically opens doors,’ he adds, before jumping up to Aspen & Meursault’s floor-to-ceiling wine rack – a striking feature of both his bars – and grabbing two bottles to demonstrate how it’s done.
From a bottle of skin-contact Moscato and an organic Prosecco, he jettisons off into the production methods of pet nat and low-intervention wine, what it means to be organic and biodynamic, why a wine might be cloudy, or orange… with all information delivered in little bite-sized nuggets that he then builds upon.
I always compare our teaching style to that of Elon Musk
‘I always compare our teaching style to that of Elon Musk. His way of thinking is that you can teach someone how fix a car or how a car works. But unless you understand how to use a spanner properly, you’re not going to fix anything, right?’
Another of the bar’s strengths, Hodge says, is there’s no sales drive; he buys direct from as many producers as possible. He says the team eschews ‘the fluff’ around a bottle of wine – favouring that which is ‘tangible and true’ over what he describes as the ‘romance’ in an estate’s marketing patter. ‘They’re [the customers] actually walking away with information that’s going to help them with their next purchase. Rather than understanding this specific winemaker, or the rolling hills of the region, or whatever…’
Having admitted that it was his ‘wine weakness’ that brought him to where he is today, I ask him if he ever had a natural inclination towards wine. Without batting an eyelid or missing a beat he fires back: ‘I like learning.’
Beaming from ear to ear, he continues: ‘I’m interested in lots of things and everything. But I think learning is my biggest interest.’ It’s exactly Sunny Hodge’s unwavering passion for and interest in the world and how it works that should get Londoners studying wine along with him.