The Very Real and Profound Genius of Taras Ochota
I only had the chance to speak with Taras Ochota once before his sudden, tragic death in October. Over the summer we had featured one of his wines in our wine club, and we were following up with an offering of some of his single vineyard bottlings and an accompanying online seminar with the winemaker himself.
A few days before the seminar I emailed Taras to confirm a few details about where on his property we could chat, the topics we might cover, and the wines my customers had available. This is the e-mail I received in response:
im good with no prep just talk shit style as it would be no different hey?!
shell be right on the night
fuck the world xx
I was slightly concerned.
The conversation that I had with Taras ended up being one of the most wonderful and memorable I have ever had with a winemaker, and I came away from it believing that Taras was a true genius. Not in the model of the erudite academic; someone who speaks in eloquent paragraphs and masterfully explains topics that are confoundingly difficult for us normal people. But someone whose genius lies on a more intuitive plane, a way of moving and being that is refined over years of work and repetition until it is mostly sub-conscious, yet consistently mesmerizing. This is how Taras made wine, and it is how he was able to transform the expectations that the world had of Australian wine. Taras made some of the best Australian wine of the last decade, and he did so through delicacy and brightness rather than richness and power.
The way it is often told, the story of Taras Ochota, on the surface, sounds a lot like the origins of other “natural” winemakers. Surfer dude, attracted to the bohemian sheen of the wine world, moves back home and starts making wine according to the noble principles of organic farming and minimal intervention in the winery. But what I found out during our conversation is that this telling of the story starts far too close to the end. It misses several decades of, far less sexy, hard work and education that explains why Tarras’ wines are so consistently exceptional.
Tarras originally graduated from hospitality school in Adelaide, but quickly discovered that the pomp of high-end restaurants and hotels was not for him. The nitty gritty background of wine, however, held immense appeal, so he started doing shift work in vineyards in the burgeoning McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. This was in the late eighties and early nineties when Robert Parker was starting to fall in love with and evangelizing the big, powerful Grenache and Shiraz wines of these regions. Taras helped plant and tend to many of those vineyards, eventually landing full time jobs at estates that were at the forefront of the “power wine” movement of Australian winemaking such as Two Hands and MSV. In the Australian winter, Taras would travel to the US to work the harvest and consult at various estates in California such as Schrader, Kunin, and various Hitching Post wineries.
Eventually Taras landed the ultimate corporate wine job, working as a consulting winemaker to the state run Swedish winemaking company Oenoforos, making wine in southern Italy and Sicily exclusively for the state run wine & liquor board. All of this is to say that- unlike many natural winemakers who have adopted the career and the lifestyle- by the time that Taras and his wife decided that they wanted to make this lofi transition, he was coming to it with decades of experience of planting and maintaining vineyards, and making literally millions of liters of clean, precisely made wine at the highest level. Thus Taras took his young family back to the Adelaide Hills where he grew up, a region that borders the McLaren Vale to the north, and settled down to make small scale, artisan wines from old vineyards.
Over the first few years of the project, Taras found that he was loving the barrels of juice that came from earlier picked lots, and following his palate, he proceeded to start moving his pick dates earlier and earlier while still being able to achieve beautiful full fruited aromas and flavors. With the higher natural acidities and lower PHs of his earlier picked fruit, Taras simply needed to use less sulfur (or none at all) to maintain clean fermentations. In other words, Taras started with the goal of making outstanding wines that he loved to drink and found he could do so with natural methods, rather than approaching the project with a natural dogma that would be prioritized over flavor.
The second part of these amazing wines, indeed what allowed him to pick his fruit relatively early and still achieve amazing complexity in terms of flavor, are the vineyards. As mentioned above, the amazing old vineyards of the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale (many of which he had helped plant or maintain when he was first starting his career in wine) were the major inspiration for the project to begin with, far before his natural methods in the cellar had been fleshed out. Luckily, upon returning to the region, Taras struck gold almost immediately, finding an old, dry farmed, bush vine Grenache vineyard in The Vale that had been planted in the 1940s and was flourishing despite the increasing drought conditions of the region. As a lifelong punk fan he dubbed the vineyard Fugazi. All of Taras’ wines are Punk references, a synchronicity with the story of Le Du’s that only endeared him more to us :).
It is at this moment that I want to reflect on my earlier claim that Taras was a true genius of wine. Taras didn’t make his wines to a recipe, or whatever elimination diet the natural wine world was currently prescribing, or even with claims of scientific consistency so as to “isolate the terroir of his vineyards.” He made his wines by working as cleanly as possible, tasting them constantly, and bottling them when he thought they were delicious. He made his wines by tasting them, yet every year they were magical, and as a result he changed the landscape of Australian wine, showing the joyous verve and exquisite elegance that was possible from regions and grapes that had previously only been allowed to express monolithic power.
David Foster Wallace, in his biopic essay on Roger Federer, Both Flesh and Not, speaks of the tennis player in a way that I think captures both Taras and his wines:
“ The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
When Taras tasted his wines-in-the-making, he tasted the potential for greatness that others missed. He was able to taste the wine, as it were, in slow motion, allowing him to consistently create something that was at once richly satisfying yet impossibly weightless. Indeed, the metaphor of winemakers turning sunlight into wine is a common one, and it rarely seemed more true than with Ochota Barrels.
If you have not had these wines before, they will not be the grandest grape juice you have ever tasted. And considering the modesty of the man that made them, I don’t think that was necessarily the intent. But they were definitively special, genre defining wines that, until a moment ago, were being made by a great man. Taras’ impact on South Australia should be remembered for having the same earth shattering impact that Robert Mondavi did in Napa, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta (founder of Sassicaia) in Tuscany, or Michel Rolland in Bordeaux. He totally transformed the spectrum of possibilities for great wine in his region, and did so with a kindness and generosity of spirit that should be remembered long after the last bottle that he touched is opened.
It was always exciting to share Taras’ wines, and today is no different. But of course there is sadness now as well. Hopefully, Ochota Barrels will live on in some shape or form. But there is no replacing Taras’ genius, the way he tasted and made the wines. His legacy will live on, at Le Du at the very least, in our reignited passion for great Australian wines and our transformed expectations on what forms that greatness can take. I’ll leave you with one more passage from Wallace, which again seems to both speak of Taras and be prescient of circumstance, as much if not more than the intended subject,
“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform- and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”