In 1997, Dan Philips, founder of Grateful Palate Imports, tasted his first Shiraz in Melbourne, Australia.
"It was like stumbling onto some kind of undiscovered winemaking utopia," Philips says. "It was like Ponce de Leon discovering the Fountain of Youth."
According to Philips, he finally found what he had been looking for "as a wine-obsessed teenager growing up in San Francisco." It is that very first taste that drives his passion for Australian wine of all kinds. He spends much of the year in Australia visiting wineries in order to find the best wines to import to the United States.
What struck him about that Shiraz was the red's brashness, a trait that is shared by Philips and drives his staunch defense of Australia's wine industry. For those wine drinkers who view Australia as nothing more than a giant bucket of mediocre grape juice, Philips has a response.
"I hope you have lots of money so you can afford very expensive psychoanalysis and figure out your very deep problems or can afford to have a tongue implant," he kids. The way he sees it, detractors of Australian wine probably "think Wilco is a bad band, Michael Stipe can't sing, a monkey could paint Mark Rothko paintings, and barbecue is not haute cuisine."
Even here in Memphis, we don't view barbecue as haute cuisine. We view it as simply good food. We know what we like, and barbecue never fails to deliver. Many Australian wines are the same. They give wine drinkers what they want: simplicity, loads of flavor, and the total lack of needing to be overanalyzed.
"Australian winemakers are extremely wine-literate," Philips says. "They've traveled the world and seen it all. But even with all this influence, they remain proudly Australian and want to make Australian wines. They, or at least the ones I've met and work with, don't try to make Bordeaux rip-offs."
The wine critic Robert Parker, founder of The Wine Advocate, has gone so far as to call Philips' palate "brilliant," a statement he has backed up by lavishing several 90-plus point ratings on the wines Grateful Palate represents. It is no secret that high scores drive sales in the wine business. These high ratings from Parker's Wine Advocate and from Wine Spectator have aided the growth of Grateful Palate Imports in Memphis and across the country. But the growth is sustained by consumers returning to the wines over and over again.
They return to the 2005 Marquis Philips Cabernet Sauvignon for the "big, thick, juicy, fresh, exuberant blackberry and cassis fruit intermixed with striking vanillin and pain grille characteristics," as described by Parker. They also return for the value that many of the wines offer. The Pillar Box Red blend (rated 91 points by Parker) sells for approximately $12.
Philips, for one, isn't bothered by wine drinkers who don't care for what Australia has to offer. "Thanks for liking bad wine," he says. "It leaves more for those of us who don't dream about meeting Larry Craig in the men's room to drink. Have you ever had a bottle of Chateau Hypocrite? You'd love it in magnum."
Marquis Philips "Holly's Blend" 2006, Southeastern Australia, $12.99
Evil Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Southeastern Australia, $12.99
McLean's Farm Shiraz-Cabernet 2004, South Australia, $17.99
Hare's Chase Red Blend 2005, Barossa Valley, $17.99
Marquis Philips Shiraz 2005, Southeastern Australia, $19.99