Taras Ochota, one of Australia’s most influential and beloved modern winemakers, passed away on Monday, October 12th at the age of 49, after a long struggle with an auto-immune-related illness. Public outpourings of love and admiration for a man known as much for his decency and kindness as for his talent as a winemaker abound.
Ochota was the owner and winemaker at Ochota Barrels, a small, family-run winery in Basket Range, a subregion of South Australia’s Adelaide Hills that has become, in large part due to Ochota’s influence, a hotbed of natural winemaking down under.
Widely considered a contemporary wine pioneer, Ochata was known for creating minimal-intervention wines that were precise, energetic, consistent and moderate in alcohol.
“No one in Australia rode the wave between ‘minimal intervention/natural’ wine styles and more traditional styles than Taras,” says James Erskine of Jauma Wines, another early innovator from Basket Range.
“Taras was the first winemaker in South Australia in the modern era to pick early and still get tons of incredible flavor,” says Ronnie Sanders, the founder and president of Vine Street Imports, Ochota’s long-time U.S. importer. “He paved the way for all of the young winemakers in Australia who may have been brought up on the bigger style of wine to say that these wines were fine for our parents, but it’s not what we want to do or drink. He was the most important winemaker of a generation.”
A punk rocker-turned-winemaker, Ochota traveled the world playing music, surfing and making wine. But growing up in his Ukrainian grandfather’s vineyards and veggie patches instilled in him a desire to “return to the land.”
“I spent years in Europe employed as a fancy pants flying winemaker,” Ochota told Wine Enthusiast in 2016. “It was an amazing experience, but the chance to hand-make holistic, small-batch wines back home in the Adelaide Hills was always [mine and my wife Amber’s] dream.”
Ochota Barrels was launched in 2008 and developed a cult following around the world, with new releases selling out within weeks.
Despite his rock star-meets-surfer dude image, Ochota, who held degrees in both business and oenology, was a switched on and technically savvy winemaker who preferred to be a member of the “beautiful wine movement,” as he put it, as opposed to the natural one.
“He paved the way for all of the young winemakers in Australia who may have been brought up on the bigger style of wine to say that these wines were fine for our parents, but it’s not what we want to do or drink. He was the most important winemaker of a generation.”—Ronnie Sanders, founder and president, Vine Street Imports
His wines received global acclaim, yet his winemaking operation was a two-man band, with Ochota as front man and his father, Yari, on every other instrument, except during vintage when he’d get a friend or two to help out. The wines, made from both homegrown and purchased grapes from around South Australia, were crafted in a tiny winery located just outside the family cottage shared by his wife Amber and two small children, Sage and Anouk.
Ochota named his boldly labelled wines after punk band references. Of the many bottlings, arguably the most well-known is his “Fugazi” Grenache. There’s also “I am the Owl” Syrah; “The Price of Silence” Gamay; and “Texture Like Sun,” a massive red blend.
His wines drew fans like Mick Jagger, who once visited Ochota’s property, bought out most of his wine stock, and stayed for a few beers with Ochota and Amber.
Maynard James Keenan, frontman of the American rock band Tool who also makes his own wines in Arizona under the label Caduceus, teamed up with Ochota. Together, they released “A Sense of Compression,” a Grenache-based wine co-fermented with a bit of Gewürztraminer. Keenan credits Ochota for influencing his own winemaking approach.
“Easily 90% of our ferments are wild now,” says Keenan. “Ninety percent of our grapes are picked earlier than we used to in order to retain that acid and freshness that you find in Ochota Barrels’s wines.”
Ochota’s personal touch, even when he couldn’t be face-to-face with his customers, left as much of a mark as the wines themselves. He hand-numbered and hand-waxed each bottle. “It just gets ridiculous sometimes—normal people don’t do this,” he once said, typically humble and self-effacing. “But I do love the result.”
Like his love of music, Ochota imbued his affection for cats into his wines by printing “meow” on the flaps of his case boxes, as he put it, simply to make people smile.
In 2016, Ochota and his business partner Charlie Lawrence opened cozy pizza-and-wine joint, Lost in a Forest, in a nearby Adelaide Hills town. It instantly became a local gathering spot that Australian publication Broadsheet described as akin to “hanging out in Taras Ochota’s home.”
Those closest to Ochota attest effusively to his humility, generosity, humor and authenticity.
“He taught me to stick to my guns, to follow my own heart and not to worry about what others were doing around me,” says Gareth Belton, whose neighboring winery, Gentle Folk, started in 2013. “His wines were him, you could taste it. It takes courage and a thick skin to stick to it, but he did. And his wines were amazing. He was amazing.”
“Taras was a magical being with a beautiful soul that showed in every wine that he put to market,” says Sanders. “When the history of Australian wine gets written, there will be a ‘before Taras and after Taras.’ That is a fact. He singularly broke the mold and changed everything, and no matter who you ask, they will tell you the same thing. The wine industry lost a real star.”