Writing for Wine Australia — Taras Ochota. Surfer. Punk. Winemaker.
One of my favourite pieces to write. One of those people that it’s impossible not to like. Heart of gold and talent for days. Ladies and Gentlemen, Taras Ochota.
Ochota Barrels wines are some of the most desired and devastatingly delicious in Australian wine. From NYC to London, Melbourne to Shanghai, these are wines that are exciting sommeliers and wine enthusiasts alike. They are made by the charismatic Taras Ochota and show a different side to Australia’s wines, one that’s focused on picking early and retaining natural acidity rather than pushing the ripeness, richness and alcohol boundaries to an extreme.
And speaking of extremes Taras himself is something of man of extremes. He spent his teen years and early adult life playing in punk bands, but he’s not part of the young generation of winemakers smashing the establishment and taking the wine world by storm. And while outside observers may see the rise and rise of Ochota Barrels as an overnight success, it’s actually a story that’s been twenty-five years in the making…
I really wanted to focus on making wines that were a bit more… holistic in their approach. So I have a bit more input into the growing the grapes organically, and then minimal intervention winemaking…
Family Ties, Family Vines
Long before Taras Ochota was carving out a life for his family in the Adelaide Hills, his family had a connection to the vine. Like many in Australia, Taras comes from a family of migrants. In his case they had come from the Ukraine to Australia and his grandfather and family starting a new life as grape growers in the Clare Valley. They were natural wine producers long before natural winemaking became the ‘thing’ that it is today. Everything was grown without chemicals and the wines were made without sulfur additions. These lo-fi wines were drunk at the table from old Vegemite jars. As we’ll find out later, this lack of pretence has been vital in shaping Taras’s attitude to wine and life.
So while wine was already part of his life, when Taras left high school he headed to university to complete a degree in hospitality management. He did this while trying to make a name for himself as a punk rocker in the band Kranktus. For a while it looked like Taras Ochota might be lost to the wine world. Kranktus were tipped as the next big band to come from Adelaide — they even played for a crowd of 5,000 at the Big Day Out, Australia’s biggest music festival. Sadly for young Taras, but happily for wine lovers everywhere, it didn’t last. He might just play for an audience of cats now, but the punk sensibilities remain to this day in the way that Taras makes his wine and lives his life.
To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.
Taras Ochota — A Punk Gets an Education
But a life in hospitality spending time with annoying customers was never going to suit someone spending their youth making a racket in a slew of punk bands, and it was up to our friend fate to intervene. ..
It will come as no surprise to hear that Taras’s first jobs after his studies were pruning vineyards in McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills. The wine bug that had bitten earlier was now taking full control and it wasn’t long before he was a vineyard manager completing studies in Oenology at the University of Adelaide.
Now with a fist full of degrees and qualifications, Taras Ochota set to work in wineries in Australia and California. Vintage in Australia was followed by vintage in California was followed by vintage in Australia and so on. Surfing in Australia was followed by surfing in California was followed by surfing in Australia and so on. Punk bands in Australia were followed by punk bands in California were followed by punk bands in Australia and so on. This could have gone on forever but an opportunity came up in the Barossa Valley that was too good to resist.
From the Barossa Valley to Sweden?!
Taras Ochota settled for a few years at Two Hands in the Barossa Valley, honing his craft with grapes sourced from some of Australia’s top regions. And while he was happy where he was, it was while working there that he spotted a job ad in the newspaper that intrigued him. A Swedish wine importer was looking for winemakers who could move to Sweden and make wines from around the world. Some may have scoffed at such a role, but for Taras it was an opportunity to travel, experience new places, meet new people and add to the grape growing and winemaking library of experiences he’d been collecting over the years.
Sweden isn’t the first destination you think of when you think of great winemakers. It is, however, a country that has a deep love of wine, and this thirst must be quenched with imports. Taras worked for Oenoforos, a large wine importing company, and here he had a couple of jobs to do. One was to work with unfinished wines imported from countries across Europe, getting them ready for bottling in Sweden. Another was working with local producers in Italy, helping them to make wines from Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Montepulciano and more for the market back in Sweden. His wife Amber came along for the ride, and together they kept adding to the library of experiences that would stand them in good stead for the return home to South Australia and the next phase of the Ochota Barrels story.
… I’ve worked around the world, worked for different people and been shown different things and I’ve picked the eyes out of those techniques. I suppose I like wines that are a bit more elegant and under-extracted and pretty so I’ve really focused on that.
‘Keepin’ it simple…’
The time came for the Ochotas to head back home to South Australia. In the back of his mind, while travelling the world, Taras had always had the idea that he’d one day have an artisanal wine label and so it turned out. They started small, with Taras still working for the man while making wines in the shed on their property in the Basket Ranges of the Adelaide Hills. But working a hundred hours and seven days a week during vintage wasn’t a sustainable or fun lifestyle. Taras had worked like this for years and the time had come to spend more time with his young family and focus on making wines that he and his friends would love to drink.
My idea is to embrace that natural acidity, which is basically from picking early. With that you get lower alcohol than your typical Australian wines. Wines that have energy. Taking a holistic approach to making wines that have an energy, that have a vibrancy. Wines that ‘pop’ when you put them in your mouth!
And while Taras and Amber acted like sponges when travelling the world, picking up hints and tips along the way, their overriding wine philosophy is shaped by their friends and family. They don’t spray or dust their tomatoes in the vegetable patch, so why would they do the same to their grapes? And they don’t add anything unnatural when cooking, so why would they in the winemaking process. It’s a philosophy that is resonating more and more with people around the world. But it wouldn’t count for squat if the wines weren’t delicious.
Selling Out Without Selling Out
Selling out is something that a punk should never do, except when you’ve done things in a way that is true to your roots and true to your heart. Ochota Barrels wines sellout within days of release, but you’ll never hear anyone accusing Taras of being a sellout. Whether it’s Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, Gamay or Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills or Grenache from McLaren Vale, Taras has a talent for finding amazing vineyard sites. He takes the fruit from these sites and handles them with love and care, letting the place and the vintage shine through. These are Australian wines without pretence and without ego and express themselves without adornment and without artifice. A punk rocking surfer is now a beacon for winemakers in the local region and an inspiration for the broader Australian wine community. A punk rocking surfer helping Australian wine gets its groove back. F%&k yeah.