Taras Ochota tells The Adelaide Review about the small batch of premium wine he made with Maynard James Keenan, A Sense of Compression.
Last summer, American rock band Tool hit a hiccup as they toured Australia. Just before their Adelaide concert, frontman Maynard James Keenan fell ill with a sore throat and had to postpone the gig by a day. So the rock star headed up to the Adelaide Hills, to a little winery tucked beside a hill in Basket Range, where he rested his vocal chords over a home cooked meal and joined local winemaker Taras Ochota in making a small batch of premium wine. The seed of this star-powered collaboration stretches back some 15 years to when Ochota was a scruffy young vineyard hand, playing bass in a punk band named Kranktus. The band was briefly popular, even played the 1996 Big Day Out festival, but eventually split in 1999. “That’s when I got more focused on making a living from wine and not just playing the top string of my bass and screaming with a distortion pedal,” Ochota, 43, says. After ticking off an oenology degree, Ochota and his wife Amber hit the road, following seasonal vintages across the hemispheres and travelling in-between. It was during a surf trip down to Mexico in their battered Volkswagen camper van that the couple resolved to create their own Ochota Barrels wine label. “We thought we’d make some Grenache because no one was into Grenache. It was the underdog variety,” Ochota says. “Everyone was into Shiraz here in Australia. Everyone sort of pooh-poohed Grenache, it was a bit low-brow.” Ochota Barrels launched in 2008 but not without a nod to Ochota’s punk rocker past, with their prized Grenache named Fugazi, after the American punk band of the same name. That caught the eye of US wine importer and punk nut Ronnie Sanders, who insisted the Ochotas have dinner with his friend Keenan, the wine fanatic rocker who runs his own vineyard in his spare time. “We hired a car and drove out through all the crazy meth lab areas, two hours out to a little place called Jerome in Arizona where Maynard lives,” Ochota recalls. “He’s a bit of a maverick out there. But to me his music seems like his day job. That’s what he does and it pays the bills and that’s what he’s always done but his passion is wine. He loves it.” The following year, when Keenan toured Australia with the 2013 Soundwave music festival, Ochota invited him up to Adelaide Hills to hang out, check out a vineyard and make some wine. The pair pressed the grapes together two months later when Keenan returned with Tool. “They came here, we had a nice lunch, basket pressed with an old ratchet on the front verandah, just pressed it straight to barrel and that was it,” Ochota says. “We didn’t make much. We didn’t want to be greedy, we just wanted to make something special that we’d enjoy.” They named it A Sense of Compression, just 919 bottles co-fermented with a dash of Gewürztraminer to “make the wine pop”, most of which sold out just four days after this year’s March 1 release. It’s a phenomenon the Ochotas are becoming accustomed to. Last year, when James Halliday awarded their 2012 Shiraz 97 points – beaten only by Henschke’s Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange – the phone rang hot with orders but everything had already been snapped up. Still, there are no plans to grow beyond the small batches that Taras and Amber, with the help of Ochota’s father Yari, can handle themselves. “That’s where we want to be, where people are going to enjoy our wines because they’re a bit more artisan and have hopefully a bit more character, they’re not your big bulk market wines.” Ochota aims for lean and savoury winemaking, making picking decisions based on the grapes’ natural acidity rather than their flavour. “It makes the wine a bit tighter and feminine and elegant,” he says. “At the same time we manipulate time on skins, so the wines are a bit more savoury and have a textual element that makes them different. That’s our main focus – texture.” But, he says, the idea is not to do too much. “Less is more. It’s a hands-off winemaking style,” he says. Did this theory spur last year’s win in the national Young Gun of Wine awards? “Could be. Doing bugger all. Lazy winemaking,” Ochota answers with a grin. “The other thing that helped is [that] the photo on our website was taken 18 years ago or something, so I still look quite young.” ochotabarrels.com