This blog’s title is Cape Chatter – and the theory is that it’s about the scuttlebutt, the stuff folks are talking about. This past week all the chatter was about Allan Mullins – the man who helped put wine retailing on the map in South Africa.
A tribute dinner was held at Spier to celebrate Mullins’s achievements as well as to raise funds towards his considerable medical bills. Anyone who has ever met him will appreciate that he never let his disability get the better of him. Apparently while recuperating from his diving accident in Conradie Hospital he was nicknamed The Shrink. His irrepressibly upbeat nature and positivity and fierce desire to walk again had more of an impact on fellow patients than the white jacketed doctors because it came from someone who was flat on his back with metal tongs attached to his skull too. He was facing the same hardship and challenges as they were.
For two decades he was the taster behind Woolworths’ extremely successful wine department. Numerous winemakers paid tribute – and it wasn’t just lip service – to Mullins and his ability to taste. His mission was not simply to take a wine farm’s existing bottling and put it on the shelf. From the outset his goal was to set Woolworths’ offering apart from what was already out there. He visited wineries and painstakingly worked his way through their tanks and barrels before sitting with the winemaker and blending a wine unique to Woolworths.
It was often somewhat galling for the rock stars of the SA wine scene to have to admit that Mullin’s judgement was better than theirs. This was because it often happened that the Woolworths’ wine would gain higher honours than their own bottlings! Cape Point Vineyards is a case in point with Woolworths’ Cape Point Vineyards Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc 2009 cracking a Platter 5 Star rating in 2010. Duncan Savage’s blushes were spared by achieving the same accolade for the Isleidh 2008 however!
The 1993 edition of the Platter Guide’s write up on Woolworths is illustratively apt: “As a one-stop wine shop, they don’t come better than this nationwide chain, offering nearly 60 wines across the whole taste and budget spectrum, in 45 stores. Senior wine selector and Cape Wine Master Allan Mullins has taken supermarket wines into another league here, stretching his suppliers to peak performances. The top-of-the-range reds, in particular, are brilliant: no serious local claret collector should be without at least some of these special blendings, fine-tuned by Mullins himself in the various cellars. Though each an individual, they reveal his own preference for power with accessibility – an unbeatable combination.”
It continues: “They’ve now introduced a Wine of the Year: the first is the ’91 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia, and to cope with the expected clamour, bought up the estate’s entire stocks.
“Woolworths’ company mantra of reliable value runs right through the range; Mullins is conscious of the wide spectrum of his customers’ tastes and caters for every possible trend. Greens will applaud his acquisition of the Cape’s first commercial-quantity organically-grown wine; those with sulphur allergies have their own red, but will have to wait until 1993 for the next no-sulphur-added white; Mullins decided the ’92 was not up to his exacting standards.”
Wine used to be a neglected facet of the grocery retail environment. Nowadays, supermarkets are where most of the sales growth lies for any brand. A universal trend, granted, but it’s been interesting to observe the subtle changes over the years. There are almost no supermarket chains in South Africa which don’t boast their own exclusive wine labels.
But that’s not the only contribution Mullins has made: he inspires people with his good humour and ability to overcome physical challenges, he is always up for a good party and infrequently meets a bottle of wine that he doesn’t like, he serves on numerous judging panels and brings his knowledge of what the consumer palate enjoys to all of them. As the Platter Guide stated, he “stretched his suppliers to peak performance” and their wines were better for it.
Mullins has not only seen the dramatic changes which have taken place in the South African wine industry and fraternity over the past two decades, he’s made a huge contribution to many of them.
(There is a silent auction on the website www.allanmullinstribute.com if anyone would like to bid on some of the unique items donated.)