27 November 2023

Wollongong's new champagne bar ready to pop the cork

| Kellie O'Brien
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man and woman standing outside their business

Sharon Arrow and Michael Graham are the brains behind the new Balthazar Champagne Bar in Wollongong. Photo: Kellie O’Brien.

Wollongong’s long-awaited champagne bar is ready to pop the cork two years after the idea first bubbled to the surface.

Former Steelers Leagues Club boss Sharon Arrow and experienced entertainment and event professional Michael Graham have teamed up to open Balthazar Champagne Bar in early December, with 150 pre-bookings already made.

Prominently located in the Lang’s Corner Building, opposite the Wollongong Town Hall, it will be one of the few true champagne bars in the country showcasing Australian and international bubbly and sparkling wines.

Inside is a nod to the Louis XIV style, with bespoke furniture with hand-picked fabrics, a stunning black-marble bar, a semi-industrial staircase befitting the style, and a 7.5-metre-high ceiling with a beautiful mezzanine level, which resulted in the “huge blowout in the timeline”.

“We have a couple of very nice chandeliers hanging down and I’ve got a baby grand piano, which we have borrowed from a business in town,” Sharon said.

“And the toilets as well – I judge a place by its bathrooms, so our bathrooms will be a bit special.”

Named after the style of a wine bottle that holds 16 standard bottles, Balthazar Champagne Bar will be a unique offering for Wollongong outside the whiskey and gin bars.

“I thought, ‘What we really have a shortage of is high-end, nice aesthetics, good wine lists for people who want to have a special occasion, or the girls want to have an evening out, or the gay community wants somewhere to go,” Sharon said.

“I’m also very aware of the growth in certain beverage segments. Particularly through COVID, we saw a huge spike in champagne.

“Champagne to me typifies happiness or success or special occasions.

“We do have a cracking wine list, beautiful cocktails that are true to the classics, like Tom Collins and whiskey sour – there’s no blenders.

“Our theme is champagne and we’re staying true to that, but we also don’t want to totally alienate someone who wants to come in and have a beer, so I don’t have tap beer, but I’ve got seven or eight beers.”

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Sharon said the beverages would be complemented by French-inspired food with a modern twist, with charcuterie boards, oysters, lobster sliders, beluga caviar, and octopus terrines.

“We’re trying to keep it as an homage to a 1940s and ’50s champagne house,” she said.

“We also understand that people’s expectations and palate have moved on a little bit from that.”

Sharon and Michael come with a wealth of experience, with Michael having spent 20 years running events and hospitality in major Sydney venues such as Olympic Park, and Sharon having more than 25 years’ experience in hospitality and major events, including as hospitality general manager for the SCG, Allianz Stadium and the Sydney Showgrounds.

The pair met at the Sydney Showgrounds before collaborating on events at the SCG and Allianz Stadium.

“We’ve become very good friends over the years, and we’ve done some amazing events together and we know how good a match we are,” Sharon said.

“We certainly complement each other in our skills and attitudes.”

That experience comes with strong industry connections, including one of Australia’s most renowned storytellers, former Australian Wine Communicator of the Year and 2023 Legend of the Vine recipient Jane Ferrari, who will provide access to exclusive boutique wineries.

“Jane is on board as a consultant with our wine and champagne list, so she sources from wine houses in Australia where they only do cellar door because they have such a small batch,” Sharon said.

“We now have some of those wines which we’re selling here which no other venue in the entire country would have.

“It’s a great coup for me to be able to tap into her relationships and the people she knows.”

Sharon said Jane would be at the venue during the first week of operation to train staff and engage with customers, which patrons loved.

“She tells a story about the wine, and she’ll tell the story about the winemaker or about an incident while she was serving that wine,” she said.

But it’s not just high-profile experts who have provided support.

“The challenges have been there, but we know that once the door is open, we will be well supported in town,” Sharon said.

“Every day people are coming up to me that I have no idea who they are, asking, ‘When are you opening?’

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“There’s been more than once where we wanted to throw in the towel and they have just carried us across the line.

“Our booking system went online about two weeks ago and we’ve probably got 150 bookings in so far.

“As soon as we put our booking system online, everybody shared it. We had 50 shares within an hour of it going up.

“This is why we’re doing it, because people in Wollongong deserve somewhere nice.”

Sharon said an analogy shared with her summed up the experience perfectly.

“I’ve never had a baby, however, they said, ‘You are like a pregnant woman just about to give birth. You’re throwing up every day. You’re in pain. You’re going through the worst period of your life. But once you have that baby, everything is forgotten. Then all of a sudden, it’s all about the baby’,” she said.

“I know that no good thing comes without trial and error, and we’ve certainly gone through that, and now we’re just about ready to pop the cork.”

Plans are afoot for a second champagne bar in Canberra and a third in Sydney.

Balthazar will open Wednesdays to Sundays, with champagne/sparkling high teas every Saturday and Sunday.

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