'Rockstar winemaker' Taras Ochota has died

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

13 October 2020

The Ochota Barrels minimum-intervention winemaker sadly passed away on Monday 12 October prompting an outpouring of grief from the wine world. Chris Losh remembers the man he describes as a 'cool glass of calm'

If you’ve been anywhere on wine social media over the last 24 hours, you’ll have seen an outpouring of sadness, grief and affection for Taras Ochota, who died on Monday.

The founder of Ochota Barrels had been ill, so logically speaking it maybe wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the wine world echoed with a profound sense of shock and emptiness at the news. For his army of fans it wasn’t just like they were losing a star winemaker. It felt like losing a friend.

The astonishing thing about Ochota was how quickly he could make you feel like that. I only met him for an afternoon – last year, over pizza in the restaurant he co-owned, then for a visit and tasting at his house in an idyllically beautiful part of the Adelaide Hills.

He walked us through the wines, dropped in jokes, told stories against himself, and made out that the wines he was making came about by some glorious accident in spite of his best efforts.

For his army of fans it wasn’t just like they were losing a star winemaker. It felt like losing a friend

His ‘recipe’ for his famous Fugazi Grenache was, he said, to ‘just jump on it, put it outside in the sun and cover it with a bedsheet to keep it clean.’ He had no destemmer, he said, because ‘it takes a lot of effort to clean’. Winemaking was ‘just like being a glorified cleaner'.

Nobody was fooled for a minute. Ochota might have played the self-deprecating ingenue card, but you can’t make great hands-off wine like he did without having a superb grasp of the technical side of winemaking. His wines might be minimum intervention, but they’re also flawlessly clean.

To me, this paradox was illustrative of the man. He was the former bass guitarist in a punk band, who loved nothing more than spending time with his wife and family; the rockstar winemaker, with zero interest in fame and, he said, more interest in growing tomatoes than grapes; a man who loved people, yet was probably never happier than punching down old-vine Grenache on his own in his shed or out with his precious surfboard. The most expensive piece of kit in his winery looked to be the stereo.

It’s rare to meet someone who embodied so many opposing positions and was completely at ease with all of them.

Which perhaps explains why, though he had strong beliefs, he wore them lightly. He cared deeply, but didn’t denigrate those who thought differently. In a binary world of perpetual outrage, he was a cool drink of calm.

He told a story of Mick Jagger popping in when the Stones were playing in Adelaide. ‘We just hung out in the garden. Mick was playing piano and singing; I was sitting there thinking "this is weird".’

Lacking in artifice or ego, his wines were as much a reflection of his personality as they were of the ancient vineyards in McLaren Vale and the Barossa where they grew

It’s a very Taras Ochota kind of story. Lacking in artifice or ego, his wines were as much a reflection of his personality as they were of the ancient vineyards in McLaren Vale and the Barossa where they grew.

‘In Adelaide Hills it’s easy to make a boring dry red,’ he said. ‘To capture Pinosity is difficult.’

His philosophy worked. He might have described himself as ‘a moron making drinks – it’s just handy when they taste delicious’. But he could have sold several times as much as he produced. And, an unnecessarily prompt payer, there was no shortage of growers who would have sold him their fruit in a heartbeat if he’d wanted it.

‘We could make more,’ he said to a room full of journalists, sitting round his enormous kitchen table last year. ‘But then I’d have to work harder, and then I wouldn’t be drinking wine with you guys.

‘I just want to make wine and have a nice life.’

It’s a genuine tragedy that that life should be curtailed far too soon. Most obviously so for his wife Amber and two children, but also for the rest of us, too. For all the great vintages not made, the wines not drunk.

So if you are lucky enough to have a bottle of Ochota Barrels at home, uncork it tonight and raise a glass for the surfer punk winemaker of the Adelaide Hills.

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