Add me to the list of wine lovers that were shocked and saddened to learn of the recent passing of Australian winemaker Taras Ochota. He died Monday, Oct. 12, following a long illness, just two months shy of his 50th birthday.
Ochota was a rock star a few times over. He played bass in the punk band Kranktus in the mid-’90s, and he was a renowned Australian winemaker. When the Rolling Stones toured Australia in 2014, they stopped for lunch at Ochota Barrels; before leaving, they bought out Ochota’s inventory, because of course they did.
Ochota represented the leading edge of a winemaking revival in the Basket Range of Adelaide Hills. He championed fresh, low-intervention wines with modest alcohol levels, made in a lighter style than most Australian wines are known for. Many of his wines, made from organically grown grapes purchased from sites around South Australia, take their names from musical influences like Dead Kennedys and Fugazi.
Ochota’s wines, mostly Syrahs and Grenaches, are aromatic, distinctive and often highlighted by a fresh acidity and pure fruit flavors. I found them exciting—and outstanding: Of the 25 Ochota wines reviewed by Wine Spectator in the past decade, 18 earned scores of 90 points or more. I’m not judgmental when it comes to alcohol percentages, but it was always remarkable to unbag them and see that they typically hovered in the 11 or 12 percent ABV range, a percentage point or two (or more) lower than their contemporaries.
Ochota, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine to Australia and had made wine in South Australia’s Clare Valley when he was growing up, earned an enology degree from the University of Adelaide. He and his wife, Amber, made wine in southern Italy’s Puglia and Sicily regions for a while. He worked at wineries in California, including Kunin, Schrader and Outpost, and back in Australia he did a stint as assistant winemaker at Two Hands in Barossa Valley.
But it was in 2000, during a VW campervan road trip, hitting the best surfing spots on Mexico’s west coast, that they came up with the plan to start their own winery in his home state of South Australia. He became the unofficial but articulate and passionate spokesperson for the Basket Range, and a new movement of low-intervention wine.
I was lucky enough to meet Ochota and his family on a trip to Australia with my mentor, Wine Spectator emeritus Harvey Steiman, in 2016.
The Basket Range is a hilly, confusing region to navigate, with lots of unnamed roads and hairpin turns. The rugged setting feels well-suited to his minimalist approach and personality. We visited shortly after harvest, and there were vats of wines fermenting under bedsheets in a dimly lit winery adjacent to Ochota’s home. Classical music was being loudly piped into the cellar. Ochota played different types of music during different phases of the winemaking process. Amber served us a picnic lunch that we ate under a tree. She was excited that a beekeeping kit had just arrived in the mail.
I asked Ochota how he felt about being the poster child of the Basket Range’s “natural” wine movement. He cringed. “I was a bit too hardcore of using ‘natural’ as marketing,” he admitted. “There’s an inverted snobbery. Instead, can we call it a ‘beautiful wine movement'?”
Over lunch, Ochota was careful not to put down his winemaking predecessors in Australia. He wanted to broaden the conversation of Australian wines, not change it. “We want wines to stimulate saliva, to stimulate your appetite,” he told me. “I’d like to make wines that you could drink a bottle by accident and feel OK the next day.”
His recognition fueled more projects and more creativity. In 2016, Ochota and business partner Charlie Lawrence opened a wood-fired pizzeria and wine lounge called Lost in a Forest in the town of Uraidla in the Adelaide Hills.
One of Ochota’s friends is another rock star–turned-vintner, Maynard James Keenan, Tool frontman and proprietor of Arizona’s Caduceus winery. “I met Taras through Ronnie Sanders [of] Vine Street Imports. He and Marquis Sauvage brought Colin [McBryde] from Some Young Punks and Taras to Jerome [Az.],” said Keenan. “I poured a Caduceus Cellars Primer Paso Syrah–Malvasia Bianca for them and you could see Taras’ gears turning.”
Keenan and Ochota later collaborated on a blend of Adelaide Hills Grenache and Gewürztraminer, called A Sense of Compression. “We had chatted about doing an Arizona version with Verde Valley Garnacha and Albariño or Vermentino or some unheard-of combo. We both like swinging for the fence. Just never got around to it,” Keenan said. “I’m gutted.”
I’m also gutted by the loss of a talented, generous winemaker. But I think he’d want us all to listen to some loud music, drink an entire bottle of wine by accident and feel OK tomorrow.