Taras Ochota was a keen observer of all things, with an extraordinary eye for beauty. He saw the beauty in people, animals, places, moments, music, and – of course – wine, the thing for which he would become world-renowned.
He started the Ochota Barrels project in 2008 with his wife Amber Ochota, after a successful career as a flying winemaker in Italy and various regions of South Australia. The money he earned making “massive volumes” of wine for other people allowed them to buy a small property in Basket Range, where they set up a micro-winery and produced tiny batches of curated bottles. From this idyllic outpost, Ochota went on to fundamentally change the Australian wine industry.
Ochota always had an eye on the moment of enjoyment, the instant of consumption. He understood wine and people, and his ability to carefully and cleverly combine the two is what made him a darling of the wine world and everyone he met. At a time when most wine was made to impress, outgun the competition and make the highest impact possible, he made wine that was delicious, drinkable and attuned to enjoyment. He shifted the goalposts.
Music played a significant role in Ochota’s life – it pervaded his psyche and inspired his work. He played bass in Adelaide punk band Kranktus, and always maintained ties with the music world. The first wine released under the Ochota Barrels label, a grenache, was named in tribute to punk band Fugazi. The full list of Ochota Barrels wines reads like a discography of his most loved bands, albums, songs and lyrics.
But in typical Ochota style, he managed to weave music and wine together with unthinkable magic. Ochota had been introduced to Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who owns winery Caduceus Cellars in Arizona. Whilst touring Australia with his band Puscifer in early 2013, Keenan took a day out to visit Ochota’s home, and the two winemaking musos began a collaboration. Keenan returned later in 2013 (this time on tour with Tool), and left Australia having made the first vintage of their McLaren Vale grenache, A Sense of Compression, in Ochota’s cellar.
Ochota’s home and winery famously overflowed with great people, wine and food. The Rolling Stones toured Australia in November 2014 and Mick Jagger, along with Keith Richards’s wife Patti Hansen, wanted to sample some wine on their way to lunch in the Adelaide Hills. They arrived to taste with Ochota in the late morning and famously ended up leaving early the following morning after succumbing to the wines, his generous hospitality and the beauty of his world. Hansen took home several bottles of Ochota’s Green Room grenache for Richards, and The Stones flew the Ochotas to Melbourne to be their guests at the show.
Ochota was generous to a fault. He loved his family and friends, and underneath that gentle demeanour was a strong, determined and courageous soul that stayed true to all he believed in, until the very end. He brought so many people together and they were all better for it. He curated interactions with a sense of insight and caring that is rare, joining the dots between so many people’s lives with a clever, tender touch.
I first met Ochota when we played ice hockey together as 10-year-olds. He was always different – a quiet yet clever kid – and I remember his father Yari as a generous and gentle man. Ochota later became that kind of man. I met him again, many years later, in the front bar of the Exeter Hotel, when we were both working in the wine game, and we remained close friends for the rest of his life. He taught me much about wine and people, and how to live a good life in every respect.
He battled two degenerative illnesses in recent years and eventually succumbed at dawn on October 13 in the loving arms of his wife Amber, surrounded by his family. He is survived by Amber, son Sage and daughter Anouk.