Mr Clovis Ochin Is France’s Coolest Winemaker (And He Raps, Too)

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Mr Clovis Ochin Is France’s Coolest Winemaker (And He Raps, Too)

Words by Mr Dan Thawley | Photography by Mr Thomas Chéné | Styling by Ms Sophie Hardcastle

14 July 2023

It was barely midday on a Wednesday in early July, and Paris was burning. After a few false starts and missed connections, the winemaker and musician Mr Clovis Ochin invited me to lunch at the Marché des Enfants Rouge in the Marais to nail this interview once and for all.

I found him by the comptoir at The Butcher of Paris, one of his more recent forays into the city’s culinary scene since parting ways with his cult restaurant Yard and the natural wine distributor, Culinaries – respectively a mythic address for new-gen French gastronomy and a farm-to-table, natural wine and organic food startup. He built both from the ground up, transforming them into veritable institutions and benchmarks of the food and beverage industry in France.

Sitting down, Ochin offered me either sun or shade while proclaiming, “I love the sun, I’m a lizard!” And I, a proud Aussie, joined him in the baking sun for a small tumbler of cold beer before he opened the first of two bottles of natural wine. (Disclaimer: the first was too sweet, so we switched.)

At 42, Ochin is all smiles, cutting a trim, unshaven figure with a brushed-back mane of salt-and-pepper hair. The day we met, his mid-week fit du jour consisted of a pair of ochre corduroy shorts cuffed above the knee, T-bar moccasins, a rust-coloured bowling shirt unbuttoned to his navel and rounded sunglasses in a checkerboard pattern of cream and orange acetate.

Blame the day-drinking, but in his schoolboy silhouette and sunset hues, he gave the distinct impression of a Mr Wes Anderson character, who, perhaps tired of summer camp in Moonrise Kingdom, shacked up at a surfing commune somewhere outside Biarritz.

Ochin has spent close to two decades honing his skills in the French wine scene, exploring a passion for the pure tradition of biodynamic, sulphate-free, low-intervention winemaking that has gained enormous traction in the industry of late. In restaurants, cellars and wine bars from San Francisco to Marseille, punters are attracted to the stuff as much for its organic provenance as the complex flavour profiles that it offers, all with the promise of a cleaner, back-to-nature drinking experience. Many of the best come from France, Spain and Italy, with countries such as Georgia and Croatia high on the ladder, too.

“I am really focused on the things that interest me and that is music and the land, the earth”

Clovis’ knowledge and palate have taken him across the globe, leading to many unexpected encounters including a chance run-in with the American rapper Action Bronson. He converted the Falstaffian musician to natural wine, before subsequently starring in Bronson’s natural wine documentary and together launching a slew of cuvees alongside the legendary vigneron Mr Patrick Bouju.

“The culture of pleasure is about understanding that some things go together so well that it is a cycle that feels good”

Today, Ochin splits his time between the 5th arrondissement of Paris, where he lives with more than 35,000 vinyl records, and a small tract of land outside Valencia. It is the latter where, since 2021, he’s tended to a vineyard of 19th-century bobal grapes in Narboneta, a small village off the electricity grid with little phone reception. As the sun beat down, we talked about everything from wine, to prison, to making music with the Paris Philharmonic…

So, bring us up to speed.

These days, I am really focused on the things that interest me and that is music and the land, the earth. I distributed and promoted natural wine for 15-20 years. At the time, it was nice to sell bottles, but with everything I’ve learnt over the past few years, the question was how to mix my two passions? When I was about to turn 37, and I had two restaurants with a big wine distributor, I turned around and I asked myself, “Are you happy?” And the answer was no. It had all become too big and less human.

Music is something that is part of me, I needed to express it and I needed it to be concrete, to be on vinyl and for it to be something that I make and sell. [But I still make] wine because I like to be in the land, never alone, because I am always with people constantly.

I started winemaking in 2021 during the pandemic. I was all alone, it was fantastic. The confinement did not stop winemakers. So, I had the option of travelling all the time. When I went to Spain, I could drive 300km without seeing another car on the highway. It was a completely crazy moment when I left my comfort zone where I had my salary, my stability and I had €4,500 saved up that allowed me to finance the harvest. I made my bottles, and the wines were delicious. So, voilà!

Can you tell us about the wine you’ve been making?

Bobal grapes are a forgotten red grape variety that can only be found in the region where I am growing, for about 20-30km. And the lucky thing is that they are pre-phylloxera vines. Phylloxera is a disease, a species of fungus that has ravaged the entire French wine industry. Mine are not clones, they’re original vines that are 135 years old. I harvest at the end of September and the beginning of October. And when I harvest, that’s when there are all the truffles and mushrooms at the same time. So, we harvest grapes during the day and eat omelettes with truffles in the evening.

And at the same time back in Paris, you are working on your next album?

I rap and I write. There are a lot of rappers who have lyricists, but I do it all myself. My first album was called Sans Souffrance Ajoutée [No Added Suffering]. That album was like therapy. People told me I had balls to be able to talk about foster homes and prison, to talk about miscarriage and other hard topics like that. And I write a lot about wine.

The first song on my next album, out this September, is dedicated to my best friend Julie Balagny, who passed away a few days ago of a heart attack aged 45. She was one of the greatest winemakers I’ve ever known. So, all my stories about wine are linked to human relationships. Like Patrick Bouju, with whom we made A La Natural with Action Bronson about seven years ago, he married another close friend and now they have two kids together. Winemaking is a family. Today, I have a surrogate family, and that is the family of the vines. And that is a magical thing to have.

And with music, I’m so lucky today as I have the chance to work with people like Action Bronson, like Alchemist. People who have really made their mark on the industry. I am working with 14 musicians from the Philharmonic in Paris for my next album – I’m really trying to take things further. These days, I try to do what makes me happy, whether it’s how I dress, whether it’s wine, whether it’s music, everything goes together. For me, nothing is better than an aperitivo with a nice glass of wine, eating something fantastic, and listening to a good record. It’s all linked for me. I am in the culture of pleasure, and I want to make it clear that the culture of pleasure is about understanding the variants of pleasure and understanding that some things go together so well that it is a cycle that feels good.

Now that natural wine has become so ubiquitous, what is your perspective on it becoming a “trend” and this allowing for sub-par wines (with good marketing) to flood the market?

Natural wine is not just another appellation, for starters. To me, it is a way of life. And my answer to your question is very simple: bad wine only comes from bad winemakers. Already with my own vineyard, in three years, we have produced 9,000, 10,000, and 12,000 bottles – and above 6,000 bottles is where you start to get into real wine production. And, to me, 90 per cent of the work is with the vines. The cellar, who cares?

The cellar is about accompanying the raw materials. If you bring in sublime grapes, if your cellar is clean, your material is clean, your tanks are clean, you can’t go wrong.

And I think it is good to set the record straight as people said from the beginning, “Watch out when you make wine, Clovis, it’s going to be funky.” My wines aren’t funky. There is nothing funky about them.

Tell us a bit about your place in Paris. It sounds like you have quite the collection of records, clothes and shoes…

My apartment is in front of the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th. It’s on three floors and I have records everywhere from floor to ceiling. It is a museum. I think I have every jacket Ralph Lauren made in the 1990s. All the Snow Beach pieces he did, the Mexican leather jackets. And I think I have about 800 pairs of shoes.

But now I am starting to sell them because it became a bit indecent – some of the rare styles that I have are worth thousands of euros online. Michael Dupouy is one of my best friends, so you can imagine some of the styles I have. I have the Jordan 1 by Colette. What am I going to do with them? I can sell them and buy three hectares of vineyards.