Toru Takamatsu is not what you would call your typical sommelier. In fact, it's difficult to fathom he works in the hospitality industry at all. He's softly spoken, shy – almost painfully so – and sports a floppy fringe that falls over his youthful face. It's a look and personality that seems incongruous to the highly enthused alpha types you'd normally expect at the frontline of top-end restaurants.
But to past and present colleagues, he's not unforgettable. The Australian-born Takamatsu has been pegged as a wunderkind for passing the wine industry's most notoriously difficult exam, the Master Sommelier Diploma, last year at just 24 years old. (The youngest ever person to pass the exam was then-23-year-old Frenchman Xavier Rousset in 2002.) It's not just Takamatsu's relative youth that fascinates his colleagues, but also how a quiet barista from Sydney's northern suburbs has accelerated so hard, so fast, just three short years into his wine career.
Much has been written about the Master Sommelier, or MS, exam. Administered by the UK-based Court of Master Sommeliers, it's widely regarded as the white whale for experienced "somms". Candidates must pass a series of stepping-stone exams and courses before attempting the Master Sommelier Diploma. Just 269 sommeliers have earned the right to affix the coveted MS initials to the end of their names since the first exams were held in 1969.
The three-part exam consists of an oral knowledge test (there's a 45-second time-limit to answer each question); a service test to assess the candidate's ability to recommend wines in a mock-restaurant setting; and the most gruelling of all, the blind taste-test to correctly identify six wines – three whites, three reds – by grape variety, district and country of origin, and its vintage (the year the grapes were picked). With 25 minutes running on the clock, it's no wonder only eight per cent of candidates pass the exam.
This wasn't Takamatsu's only attempt at passing the exam; in 2018 he failed the test-test. (Candidates are never told which wines they identified incorrectly, but he suspects White Wine No. 2 was his undoing.) "The first time was pretty devastating. The pass mark needed is very high, but it's like anything – you have hope," he says. "Then when you do [pass], it feels quite unreal."
Tales abound of candidates' strict study regimes. Flashcards, as seen in the 2013 documentary Somm, are common; Takamatsu eschewed these, preferring to jot down notes for an hour a day. He did, however, hand-draw maps of Europe, particularly the wine-producing regions of Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. That, plus weekly wine-tasting sessions with fellow MS candidate Maciej Lyko, conducted in the morning. Pre-lunchtime wine? Takamatsu shrugs. "It's the only time we were available to taste," he says, explaining he and Lyko were still working at London restaurants Hide, and Launceston Place, respectively.
He estimates he spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on plonk in his exam preparations. Another shrug. "If you're making coffee, do you want to taste the Esmerelda [coffee from a highly prized farm in Panama], or do you want to look at it?" he says. "I'm happy to spend it because it's my job and passion."
The coffee analogy is an important piece of the Takamatsu puzzle. He started working as a barista at 15, hopping through a series of Sydney cafes in the CBD, Crows Nest and the inner-west in his early 20s. Colleagues remember him for his quiet but persistent curiosity for coffee.
"He was always up-to-date, coffee-wise. We didn't have to train him – he taught himself," says Dan Kim, owner of Primary Coffee in Potts Point. At an inner-west Sydney cafe Kim once operated and where Takamatsu worked, the young barista displayed a level of organisation on par with that of a business partner. "He was almost like a boss to me and [co-owner] Andrew Carter," says Kim.
Even now, after late-night shifts at Mimi's, the newly opened restaurant at Coogee Pavilion, Takamatsu still mans the coffee machine at Kim's cafe every Saturday morning. It's all part of a broader pursuit to keep his tastebuds sharp. "Toru is really into flavour. In his spare time, he wants to continue that pursuit to perfect his palate," says Dimitri Tricolas, a former colleague. "It might seem weird that he'll work for Primary, but to people who know him, it makes sense."
It was a meal at Felix, aged 21, that piqued Takamatsu's interest in wine. "I thought wine wasn't for me, that people just drink wine for the sake of it or to be posh," he said in an interview with his current employer, hospitality group Merivale. He had two French wines there, a sancerre from Francois Cotat Les Monts Damnes and a Château La Lagune Bordeaux. "I can't remember the vintage. I do remember that I liked it."
Then came solo-dining adventures at Rockpool Bar & Grill where he met current head sommelier Yuki Hirose. "I thought it was kind of weird, this young guy having a Chablis Grand Cru by himself," Hirose remembers. The two struck up a friendship; soon after, Takamatsu entered the service world as a runner with Rockpool, and Hirose recruited him as a junior somm for the now-closed restaurant Eleven Bridge. It was a risk, management warned Hirose – the shy Takamatsu was an ill-fit for a customer-facing role in the fine-dining environment. But, like his barista days, Takamatsu's quiet, studious persistence came out, unexpectedly, on top. "Toru is very kind and gentle, but he's also poised and measured. That's a big part of his enormous success," says Tricolas. "He's a very cool customer."
No one is surprised at Takamatsu's MS credentials. Nor are they surprised at his lack of ego, despite the weight of those newly acquired initials. "His personality hasn't changed, but he has more confidence when he speaks about wine," says Hirose. Franck Moreau, Merivale's group sommelier, is keen to see him grow into a leader and educator in the field; Takamatsu has already guest starred at "preparatory workshops" for aspiring Master Sommeliers in Sydney. He also plans on pursuing a Master of Wine, a highly regarded qualification with emphasis on research, essays and wine communication.
But for now, there's the wine to be drunk (Burgundy pinot noir, his favourite), and day-to-day service to be done: uncorking bottles, recommending wines to pair with meals, polishing stemware. It's a fine art, done in his own style that Takamatsu describes as "background music" – imperceptible, perhaps, but impeccable. "You don't notice it, but the timing is always right," he says. "I don't want to be remembered by my name, but I want to be remembered as someone who made a good wine choice."