Community + Wine in Congress Park
Mary Kent shares her beautiful and inspiring story of opening a neighborhood wine bar in Congress park. Her passion for creating a beautiful space, business & neighborhood gathering place shines through in her story. It truly is local business owners and neighbors like Mary who contribute so much to the personality and vibe of our urban neighborhoods. Congress Park is lucky to have Mary and Sienna within it bringing the community together in such a meaningful and fun way.
Sienna Wine Bar & Small Plates
3422 E 12th Avenue
Denver, CO 80206
Why Congress Park?
From 2004-2006 I was living in Aspen and commuting to Denver to do my MA at DU’s Graduate School for International Studies. While in Denver I was living at my dad’s house near 9th & Steele. I always wished and yearned for a cool little neighborhood gathering place on that corner!
At the time there were three hair salons and the TAG space was vacant. Everyone is so loyal to their neighborhoods in Denver and Congress Park people especially, I kept hearing how they all wished they had their own great little spot to grab a drink and meet.
A couple years later I fell in love with a Denver guy and I decided to move to Denver. We bought a beautiful old Victorian in Congress Park and I decided to open a little wine bar at 12th and Madison.
My life has for some reason always been filled with wine people, importers, winemakers, wine experts of every stripe made my list of top beloved friends. I chaired a committee at the Aspen Classic, the definitive wine event in the world, and attended for twelve years straight. So although I am no expert, I have had the great honor of being in the presence and learning from the world’s most renowned experts. If you throw enough spaghetti at a wall some of it will stick so I do know a thing or two, but I’ve always been careful to maintain a beginner’s mind about wine, and that is what I encourage our guests to do as well. My favorite thing is when a guests says “well, I really don’t know anything about wine” because then I get the chance to empower them by helping them realize they are the expert of their own palate.
Everyone’s palate is different, so the only wine expertise anyone needs is to know what tastes interesting and delicious to their unique mouth. Discovering interesting pairings is fun, but anyone who tries to tell you what you can and can’t drink with what food and pretends to know more than you about drinking wine is just exhibiting how little they really understand. If you want champagne with your steak, or red with your sea bass, go for it. You are the expert which is what makes wine so fun. You might taste jasmine flowers and I taste gravel. Nobody is right or wrong! I’m not insulting anyone who makes a hobby or living of learning and knowing about wine, I have a lot of respect for that knowledge. It just doesn’t extend to pretending to know what someone else should be enjoying.
A wine bar was a natural choice. I was determined to offer amazing wines at affordable prices and had the contacts to make it happen. As a student I would go out in Denver and sometimes the only drinkable wines on a list were $12-$14/glass and then my budget is blown in two drinks! Given the multitude of extraordinary wines in this world at reasonable prices, there is no excuse for bad wine at any price point on any list. Every wine has a story, a family, a hometown. They are like people in a way and so much fun to meet and find out about. It is a joy working with them, and excruciating when I have to take any off the list to make room for new ones!
At first, I approached Jonah and Brian at Wildflowers about taking over the west edge of their store. They said sorry, that’s our favorite part of the store! But we would LOVE you to open a wine bar around here! I turned around and looked across the street at the store front there. It was a hair salon that had been owned by this sweet Russian couple for decades. I noticed their hours were very limited and wondered if they might be getting ready to close. This was August 2008 and I was still living in Aspen working for a non profit. I cold called the building owner and it turned out they were planning to retire in January, which was perfect timing. We all became friends and the whole experience was charming.
We gutted the place completely, Quince and his friends did almost all of it. I designed the big epoxy resin bartop full of treasures, but they had to execute all of it because by that time I was pregnant and couldn’t get near any of it. Basically I designed everything and my beloved built it for me. The whole neighborhood was coming by, hanging out, helping. It was such a beautiful organic experience basking in the light of their support and comradery while building the bar. I remember a little three year old who came by a few times a week with his mom. She said, “I ask him if he wants to go to the playground, but he always wants to check on the wine bar,” Everyone was following my pregnancy and offering all of this great advice. I remember when Turner was born that August, the bar was full of people celebrating! It was like the whole neighborhood had become our extended family. (I was running around the bar until midnight and then went into labor at three am!)
I have always been a Sociologist at heart (I get that from my dad) and I wanted to cultivate a neighborhood gathering place more than anything else, and in that and with the help of my spectacular staff I have succeeded! Now it is a wonderful little neighborhood joint. Every time I’m at Sienna I’m so impressed by the wonderful people who hang out there, all ages, having a ball together. I hear story after story of people having the most wonderful experiences there and I am so happy that it has become everything I wanted it to be. When we have a date night we always talk about going here or there, but we always end up at our bar because it is just so darn fun. Congress Park people are a fantastic and varied bunch, and the people Sienna attracts from other parts of town are the best people ever.
I love how easy it is for people to walk and bike to the bar. Sometimes we will approach the bar from a distance and there will be no cars out front and we’re like “oh no! Nobody’s at the bar!” Then we get closer and it’s packed with people who walked or biked. Hooray! I have always designed a life for myself where I can walk everywhere, even if it meant less space or whatever. In San Diego, I lived at the beach. In Aspen, I lived in town. I wanted a short commute plus a wonderful hangout a block away from my house in Denver, I built one!
What inspired the look or design of Sienna?
Sienna Wine Bar all started when I read an essay about the big crayon box and how Crayola did a promotion where they were going to get rid of a bunch of colors and people could vote which one to save. The votes wildly exceeded their expectations and numbered in the hundreds of thousands. EVERYONE has had the big crayon box with all of those colors that shaped our early lives and everyone wanted a stake in its future. Burnt Sienna won, which is a reddish-brown color, but the article was so touching I was tickled and the idea of Sienna Wine Bar was born.
Raw Sienna is the golden yellow color of the time just before sunset, when the sky is becoming a deep blue but the horizons are still gold and everything looks supernaturally beautiful and enchanting. That is what I wanted to capture in the design of Sienna. All of the months before opening I was prowling antique shops and when something belonged at Sienna I would know right away. We created a magical place where you can just relax and lose yourself.
Questions about Congress Park? Reach out to Sara as she knows all the neighborhood happenings! sarawilhelm.liveurbandenver.com