Bar Beat

A Chat with Mike Sammons of 13 Celsius

To some, a bartender is just a server with something to lean on. But Mike Sammons is an example of how, with passion and creativity, the job can be so much more. "I started doing this to make money, but I was really good at it because I liked it," he says. "I don't think people have any idea how fun it actually is. It's a miniature event or party every night that's my job to arrange."

As co-owner and proprietor of 13 Celsius (3000 Caroline St., 713-529-8466), he's created a place where people can share in their passion for wine. "There's a certain type of person that comes in here that wants to try something unique and different and is already interested in wine," says Sammons.

"People that have a nice collection at home, but don't really drink it unless it's a special occasion, generally they just collect it. And here they have the opportunity to say, 'Oh, an Italian Gewurztraminer,' and be able to try it for $15 a glass rather than at $80 for a bottle. Everybody that works here is excited to show off wines that people haven't tried; to pour them a taste and explain to them what it is and where it's from and why it's unique. And I think that really engages people. It's the same with anything--art, or food--if you've never experienced it, and you try it and it's good, you've got your money's worth. If I can please somebody by offering them something they've never considered before, that is really rewarding. Screw the tip, I want the 'Oh, this is awesome, thank you.'"

Sammons likes to travel, and wine is always part of the equation. "So I can write it off," he laughs. He recently returned from an enormous wine convention in Verona where every Italian vineyard was represented. "I was looking primarily for Slovenian and Sicilian wines," he says, and if he can convince the distributors to send them here, he hopes to have them in stock in about a year. What's next on his radar? "Japan--they have Japanese wine--Thailand, maybe Uruguay. Something unexpected."

And in case anyone at the IRS is curious, patrons will happily vouch for how these trips inspire Sammons. "I was in Portugal about a year ago and I sat down in this café and these three burly, sort of construction-type guys, they just walk in at 10 a.m. and hold up three fingers to order, and this old man starts pouring these long glasses of beer, but at the bottom he's putting vermouth in every one. I was like, 'I don't know what the hell that is, but I'd like one.' And it was great, like a fortified beer with a little sweetness to it. And when I came back here, I tried to do the same thing, well, the vermouth isn't really the same, so I picked another vermouth that I like better, and then I added some orange to it and a little angostura bitters, and suddenly I have this fascinating drink that's a lot better than the one I found in Portugal."

To talk to Mike, one can almost forget that he's a bar owner and imagine that he's an artist whose medium just happens to be beverages. "I know as a businessperson, I have to sell things because that's what puts food on the table," Sammons says, "but what's really important is to be able to create something."

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Sarah Rufka