Your guide to what's in the glass, with the drinks boss of The Ritz-Carlton, Melbourne.

Sean Lam, head sommelier of The Ritz-Carlton, Melbourne, is pretty certain he’s the only sommelier in Australia who both holds a degree in sports science and worked as a football coach before pivoting to a career in wine. Hailing from Hong Kong, he has led teams and shaped wine lists at such institutions as Flower Drum and Ryne, and more recently, at Beverly Rooftop. 

Sean is now pouring from the 80th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Melbourne; here’s what’s good in the glass in Victoria, according to Atria’s main drinks man. 

Looking at the Victorian drinks world from the outside in, I think its key strengths are threefold.

First there’s the strength of the Melbourne dining scene. Melbourne has the most vibrant dining scene in Australia (sorry Sydney), from farm-to-table restaurants like Brae, to high-end Japanese omakase venues like Minamishima, Warabi, and Yugen Upstairs, and the OG Chinese fine-diner, Flower Drum. This robust dining scene has created a discerning crowd with an educated palate, which feeds interest, and most importantly, demand, back into the local beverage industry to strive and push boundaries.

Then there’s the diversity of its drinks. The diversity of what our state offers is unmatched anywhere in the world. We produce everything from prosecco to méthode traditionnelle. French varieties dominate but there’s obscure dry-grown Italian varieties in Riverina for example, plus spirits from the world-renowned Four Pillars, right through to pear brandy from the Goulburn Valley.

And then there’s the matter of how well-established our wine industry is. Some of Australia’s most famous and important winemakers, such as Phillip Jones, Gary Farr and the [Mount Mary] Middletons, call Victoria home. Their work has helped place Victoria, and indeed Australia, in the spotlight and firmly on the wine map of the world.

The last three delicious Victorian things I drank were… 

2018 Crittenden Estate ‘Cri de Coeur’ Savagnin Sous Voile
It’s ironic how a disastrous mistake led to one of the most interesting wines in Victoria, if not Australia at the moment. Hats off to the person who accidentally delivered savagnin vines instead of albariño vines. Rich and nutty but framed with a lovely vibrancy and acidity, it’s the perfect autumn wine with Victorian pine mushrooms.

2019 Levantine Hill Estate ‘Optume’ Cabernet Sauvignon
Going against the Burgundian principle of isolating single plots within single vineyards, Paul Bridgeman has championed the Rhône Valley model, blending different sites and painting a full picture of a region. Site selection has allowed Bridgeman to craft a Yarra cabernet to its full potential, reflecting exceptional regional character but with power and concentration that is rarely seen in Yarra cabernets.

1993 Bannockburn Estate Pinot Noir (opened in 2016)
This remains my favourite Australian wine, and one of the best wines I have ever tasted. As a country, we tend to drink our wines within years, if not a year, of release. Very little effort is made to drink Victorian wine at its maximum potential. Gary Farr is rightly considered one of the legends of Victorian pinot noir and this bottle was a testament to the quality and potential of Victoria wines.

When someone hands me a drinks list, I make the Champagne page is normally my first port of call. I love Champagnes, influenced by working for many years with Jason Lui from Flower Drum. It’s not just an aperitif and for special occasions. Champagne is actually one of the most versatile categories of wine, and works with such a diverse range of cuisines and produce. We recently did a full five-course Moët & Chandon pairing for Valentine’s Day at Atria. Some guests were initially sceptical, especially of rosé Champagne, but by the end were blown away. Playing with the blend ratio, lees aging, sugar content et cetera, the pairing possibilities are vast.

As far as I’m concerned, the defining place to get a drink in Victoria is Atria. The restaurant’s philosophy and menu are centred around local produce, and flowing on from that concept, the beverage list focuses on Victorian wines, beers and spirits. High up on the 80th floor, the beverage team can literally point to where your drink came from. I encourage you to try our signature Victorian seafood crudo with a bottle of Yarra Valley white, accompanied by our panoramic views of the Mornington Peninsula; it doesn’t get more Victorian! We’re also one of the first modern-Australian venues in Victoria to have a full sake list, for those seeking an innovative dining and drinking experience in Victoria.

There’s no better value drinks list in this state than Agostino on Lygon Street. Great food and service, and an extensive, but very approachable wine list.

My favourite place to buy booze is City Wine Shop. A meticulous selection of wines and for those that are not shy to splash, an extensive cellar list as well. If you’re feeling too lazy to cook, you can also open the bottle at the venue with a minimal opening fee and enjoy great food from The European kitchen. If you’ve got any questions or want to learn more while drinking at the bar counter, ask for a guy called Jack. He is literal a walking encyclopedia.

I’d love to see Victoria distilling eau-de-vie, a type of clear fruit brandy. Wine regions in France have their own eau-die-vie, from Marc de Bourgogne in Burgundy and Ratafia Champenois from Champagne, yet most of our grapes just go to farms. To me, it seems to be an awful waste of our fine terroir.

My guilty pleasure at the bar is a Carlton Draught or VB. I like a pint (or two), especially after work in summer. Please don’t judge.

The Victorian spirit I’m loving most right now is Anther Mooncake Gin by Joey Tai. There are boutique craft gins and incredible boutique craft gins; this is the latter. Ingredients that you would not have thought belonged to a gin – red date, lily bulbs and lotus seeds – are smartly incorporated, creating a gin that is warmly spicy and aromatic, and is a great celebration of the diversity that we have in our industry.

The best or most important change to the way people drink in Victoria in recent years has been… we’re starting to see an increase in, and most importantly an appreciation of, luxury and bespoke bar experiences – ones that focus on the relationship between the bartender, the customer and the product. Goodbye Pornstar Martinis and Vodka Lime Sodas, hello to artisanal mixology. The renewed focus on refined and sophisticated bar service – the revamped Lui Bar, Apollo Inn, the bar at Society, and of course our very own Cameo at The Ritz-Carlton Melbourne – only elevates the vibrant bar scene we already have in Melbourne.

For me, the most inspiring person in the Victorian drinks world is Xavier Vigier at the soon-to-be-opened Circl Wine House. Winner of the Judy Hirst award in 2021, he writes legendary lists, yet the man himself is so humble and informative. I had the pleasure of dining at Ten Minutes by Tractor, in 2019 while I was still a junior sommelier, and was blown away by his list. I said to myself at the time, “that’s how I’d like to write a list”. I still have photos of his list on my phone to reference. I believe his new list at Circl features around 120 wines by the glass. Incredible. 

Atria, The Ritz-Carlton, Melbourne; level 80, 650 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, (03) 9122 2858, open 6pm-11pm daily and noon-2.30pm Thu-Sat, atriadining.com.au, @atria.dining