SA Wine Legend: Allan Mullins

“It was a beautiful day,” says Cape Wine Master, Allan Mullins. “Just perfect for a braai with some friends. We went to this spot between Llandudno and Sandy Bay. There was this gully where water rushed in and out. We decided to try and dive in time to the water filling it. A friend of mine timed it perfectly.

“I hit sand. My neck snapped back, and I was washed out to sea. I was a surfer, I knew the ocean and I knew I was going to drown. This beautiful purple haze descended over me and I welcomed it.

“My friend saw that I had landed badly, came after me and got me over razor sharp rocks and churning water.”

The sound of that distant surf recedes and is replaced with the clink of cutlery; the scent of the ocean diffuses into the aroma of Italian cooking. We’re eating lunch in one of Allan’s regulars, cult foodie favourite, Magica Roma.

Apart from being responsible for ensuring that the Woolworths shelves were filled with the finest wines for almost three decades, Allan is also well respected as a judge, writer (both books and magazines), tasting presenter and lecturer in the wine industry.

He was just 23-years old when the accident at the beach took place. Initially the prognosis was dire, but in just six weeks he says feeling started to come back.  “It was actually a lot of fun in hospital,” he adds. “I met a lot of brilliant, inspiring people.” By the end of the year he was on crutches.

This inherent positivity has run like a golden seam through his life. He grew up in the Eastern Cape, in ‘a cottage by the sea’, the oldest of seven children. “I had the most incredible parents. My dad was a judge and my Irish mother lived life to the fullest, always with a big glass of wine in-hand.”

He was schooled at St Aidan’s College in Grahamstown and for his tertiary education he went to Rhodes University where he achieved a masters degree in Mathematics.

Though initially he was on the path to become an actuary, his love of people—and maths—saw him becoming a Mathematics teacher at SACS High School in Cape Town.

“I loved teaching,” Allan enthuses. “I’ve also always been fanatical about sports, and I coached water polo and rugby teams.

“I was desperate to travel so I put together groups of 30 to 40 people and despite my disability I led fun filled tours, firstly to Mauritius and then more adventurous trips to Greece, Israel, Turkey and Egypt.

“Leading these tours was a great source of pride to me and they were enormously festive”.

During his 12-year tenure at SACS, wine came into his life. “Growing up in the Eastern Cape it was just ‘beer, beer, beer’.

“Phyllis Hands, the Cape Wine Academy principal, inspired me big time. She put wine in front of me, and we discovered I had a natural aptitude for it.

“I became the sixth Cape Wine Master. I was quite a rare breed at the time, and I was in hot demand for all kinds of wine events and tastings.”

A chance encounter at one of those tastings set out to define the next three decades of his life. “It was at the Alphen Hotel, the rain was coming down, so we were all squashed in this room. I was standing next to Eve Jell, who confided in me that she was leaving her job as wine selector at Woolworths to open a restaurant.

“I quickly applied for the position—so did many others!—and despite the crutches, I got the job.

“And from there on it was sheer heaven.”

As the Woolworths Wine Selector Allan has blended and selected all of the retailer’s wines as well as having planned and implemented the ranges. No small task—and one that has seen both him and Woolworths raking in the awards.

Innovation was always important says Allan, that was the driving philosophy, to expand the category and to do things that haven’t yet been done in the sector.

“When it came to blending the wines I worked right through the process: from going to the vineyards to tasting the juice as it came off the press.

“A huge breakthrough for me was when Woolworths realised the importance of recognising the producer by putting them on the label.”

Another highlight in his Woolies career was the conception and release of the Signature Series, a range where Allan collaborated with some of the top names in the wine industry; from sauvignon blanc with Duncan Savage to a chardonnay with Danie de Wet.

In between all this he was also the co-owner and cellar master of Rozenhof, an award-winning restaurant in Cape Town (from 1984 to 1994). Not to mention his biggest coup, meeting his wife Therese at a wedding in 2000. “A clothes designer at the time, she designed the dress, and I did the wine.”

The pair were married in 2001 at Boekenhoutskloof. “It was a humungous wedding,” says Allan with a smile. “With lots of champagne and dancing in the mud!

“I love this industry and I make the most of every day, I am so happy with what I’ve accomplished and most importantly for the relationships I’ve built."

Last October against all the odds Allan reached the age of 70. Numerous parties were held and his generous friends contributed to his medical fund. He now has new wheelchairs as well as a new lease on life.

A testament to this, in 2015, was when his winemaker friends, led by Duncan Savage took him out for a surf. Hoisted onto an 18-feet stand-up paddleboard he went out into the ocean he loves, surrounded by his friends.

“It was a thrilling experience and we have done it a number of times since. In fact Duncan, my surfing winemaker friends and Woolworths got me my own board, and so the adventure continues. These adventures into the waves have become festive outings, celebrated with much wine and many bikini-clad girls.

“Looking back at my life I think about how fortunate I’ve been and how blessed I am. I’ve never let my lack of mobility depress me or hold me back.

“Do what you can with what you’ve got, and do it with your whole heart.”

- Malu Lambert