The Conservatory Bar & Sunset Bar.
The Conservatory Bar is a little piece of England with an extensive wine cellar. Owner and curator of these fine premises, and equally fine wines, Ross Stevens makes no bones about his heritage, or the eclectic style of his wine bar. The Conservatory Bar, Ross’s first venture into ownership, is a cross between an Edwardian drawing room and Mayfair club snug.
It oozes character and style, from the Chesterfield and dark oak function table to the black and white pictures, and wine maps, that adorn the dark painted walls. This, says Ross, is his front room, although it's fair to say that whatever room it is, is merely a display case for the heart of the bar, which is the 800-strong, award winning wine list.
Ross does not disguise his wine knowledge, which borders on the encyclopaedic. He speaks with a passionate fluidity about the language of the fermented grape, the regions of the world from which they hail, and the varietals that drive this fascinating and alluring trade. But even with all the wealth of understanding, he does not patronise or bore. He is inclusive and entertaining, and the dynamic centre of the bar’s many tasting evenings.
Evenings which pitch mock battles between wine cultures and countries or showcase vineyards, some well known, some obscure. A useful talent, as the award winning wine list at The Conservatory Bar boasts some 800 wines. These are not gender-neutral participation type awards, this is the ‘2-glass rating’ from the Australian Wine List of The Year in 2022, the wine bar equivalent of Michelin blessing your restaurant with stars. It is no small feat to bring such accolades to a little corner of the tropics, whose agriculture is, somewhat ironically, completely bereft of the grape.
Like a lot of fanatics, Ross inherited his enthusiasm, stemming from his grandfather's wine interest whilst growing up in the darkest west country in the quaint English market town of Honiton. As is the way with many young men from quiet country towns, the desire to leave overcame the comparative safety of a more certain future with the family business, instead, opening up a global trail of food, wine and wonder. Washing up on the shores of the Far North a decade ago, he was quick to exploit local hospitality by employing an inclusive, attentive, hardworking attitude and, of course, his extensive wine knowledge, becoming the food and beverage manager at five star resort at the comparatively tender age of 24.
A decade later sees Ross at the helm of three bars, two in Cairns and one in Port Douglas (The Sunroom Lounge, see page 76). The first of these formerly mentioned is The Conservatory Bar, which for the last few years has provided a refuge for grown ups to gather, converse and indulge in the Far North's own tribute to Edwardian-style opulence and, of course, outstanding wine.
More recently, the calm beneficence of The Conservatory Bar has gained a newer younger sibling, Sunset Bar, located at the iconic Harbour Lights on the Trinity Inlet in Cairns. As is often the case with younger siblings, the venue is more rumbustious and turns its attention to the shaking and the making with an extensive and sophisticated cocktail list. The vibe is definitely more party, but again a place for the well-heeled to congregate and sip, no party jugs or balloon chasers here. Sunset Bar was the final piece of the puzzle for Ross, wine and food covered with equal detail and intensity at his other venues; he felt there was space to turn his attention to the top shelf.
“I wanted to take the same values we had in our other bars and create a high-end cocktail experience. Like our wine list, the cocktails and spirits are curated to contain the best and most interesting we can find,” Ross says.
Ross is also a firm advocate of the local beverage industry and although local beers and spirits feature in his other wine venues, they are inherently not the focus.
“Sunset Bar has given me a chance to showcase the fantastic distillers and brewers here in FNQ. All of our house spirits for cocktails, and all of our beers, are local.”
He is quick to assure that these inclusions are not just lip service or regionalism.
“Using local isn’t just keeping dollars here where they belong; we genuinely produce products that are world beating and can easily hold their own against the more familiar multinational brands.”
There is no doubt that Ross is proud of his achievements, all shared and supported by his long-time partner and confidante Sam.
“I’m lucky to have been able to share my vision with someone equally enthusiastic, and I’m equally lucky that I have been able to turn my passion into something rewarding,” concludes Ross.
Indeed, these venues are a testament to passion, wine, and single mindedness. An amazing leap from a lad ordering a glass of wine at his local country pub, in a far off place more famous for fermenting apples than grapes.
Whichever Cairns venue you visit, you will be rewarded by a unique and upmarket experience.