“Before Buddha or Jesus spoke, the nightingale sang, and long after the words of Jesus and Buddha are gone into oblivion, the nightingale still will sing. Because it is neither preaching nor commanding nor urging. It is just singing.”
– D.H. Lawrence
It seems that nearly every day, a new wine podcast makes its debut. Across platforms like Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher, Google, Apple and iHeartRadio, you can curl up with a good glass of wine and listen to a whole bevy of wine industry pundits and winemakers talk about everything from natural wines to cold-soaking, from stirring the lees to working the market. Perhaps because I am in the wine business and listen to too much of this kind of talk already, I find listening to wine podcasts mostly unbearable – like going to the dentist or visiting the guy who does my taxes.
There are a handful, though, that hold the attention of this jaded wine biz gal, and I tune into them regularly. I listen to Levi Dalton’s informative and enjoyable I’ll Drink to That podcast; the excellent Wine Face with Helen Johannsen; The Taste with Doug Shafer, which is informative and relaxing; Consumed with the articulate and inquisitive Jaime Lewis; and The Black Wine Guy Experience, hosted by the music-loving and endlessly curious MJ Towler.
I first heard about Towler from a colleague who described him as a wine influencer I might like to have on my radar. To pay the bills, I am a wine marketing and public relations consultant by day, and over the last few years, I’ve communicated with influencers nationwide, oftentimes engaging with them professionally to help promote a new brand launch or an in-market event hosted by a client. Influencers, though oft maligned, can be helpful to wineries hoping to interact more directly with consumers. Though, like podcasters, many of them are amateurs and only in the game for the freebies, serious influencers can help move the needle in a specific marketplace or among a certain demographic. The best ones take their outreach seriously and often post thoughtful and inventive content about wines, growing regions, and producers.
Towler tells me, “I don’t consider myself an influencer. I’m just trying to find my niche. One of the things I’m most passionate about is wine. I can talk to people for hours about wine. For my first year on Instagram, all I did was post photos of bottles.” Towler then took a year off from Instagram, uncertain where he was headed with his platform. His in-laws encouraged him to jump back into the fray, and when he did, he discovered that his followers had missed his posts. “I realized I had a little community there.” Unlike many influencers, though, Towler says, he doesn’t engage with his audience simply to garner Likes. “You see what influencers are doing, and they’re so phony.”
He prefers to engage his audience in all aspects of his life and interests, two of the main ones being wine and music. “I love music. It’s a huge part of my life. I like business. I like transformation. I like exercise. You can be a wine guy who talks about all those things. By sharing more of me, I find my tribe. There’s nothing better than when someone buys a bottle of wine based upon one of my recommendations. What has happened by me opening up and sharing more of my real life, my true self, is that things are falling out of the sky and coming towards me. That sounds woo woo. I lived in California for years,” he says, laughing.
I knew Towler wasn’t the average wine influencer when I visited his Instagram account and watched his stories and scrolled through his posts. Indeed, he’s as comfortable talking about an obscurely small bottling of Cabernet from Sonoma’s Moon Mountain as he is chatting about Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, or one of his favorite tunes by Hall & Oates. He’ll post short music videos, during which a wine is featured with a popular song playing in the background. Towler often includes the song’s lyrics so the audience can sing along. It’s a cool karaoke-like approach to wine education, and it’s caught on. “I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I was probably twelve or thirteen when MTV came out, and it had a huge, profound impact on me. My mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, so I didn’t get to go out to parties. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music. My father loved music.” Though his father was a postal worker and was not wealthy, he did invest in high-end stereo equipment. He introduced the young Towler to everyone from “Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles and country music. I just remember being in my room with big headphones on – and those are now back in fashion – and I listened to all kinds of music. I was really into New Wave and Punk Rock. I also listened to R&B.”
As we speak, he is seated in a bright room in his home in New Jersey. He’s in a colorful shirt, his smile is broad and open, and he occasionally swirls and smells a glass of wine he’s enjoying during our chat. After taking a sip, he leans back and continues, “Remember Columbia House club? I was an early adopter, so I had my first CD player in 1986. I used to have a ton of CDs…about 400.” Though his CDs were eventually lost in various moves, his then girlfriend, and now wife, bought him a record player. “That got me on a tear; I have about 700 vinyl records.” Towler was able to buy vinyl versions of the many CDs he lost over the years. He now collects vinyl from around the world, including Japan, France and Germany.
And how does he pair wine with music? “I have way too much wine for the little amount of money I make,” he says laughing. “I drink way above my paygrade. So, my wife and I usually have a bottle of rose or white to start and then we’ll have a red with dinner.” It is during these end-of-the-day moments that he conceives of his music and wine pairings that have become so popular with his Instagram followers. On the day we speak, for example, he is drinking the 2016 Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay from the Bentrock Vineyard. He instinctively decides to pair it with “On Bended Knee” by Boyz II Men. As soon as he tasted the wine, he says, he thought of this song. “That’s how it works. I want people to wonder, ‘How is that song connected to that wine?’ Music is so integral to life. If you look at it historically, it’s always been a way of communicating – of sending messages, celebrating, in protest songs. Music is just one of the most powerful things in the world. It moves you.” Towler likens music to certain aspects of wine appreciation. “Smell can take you back to a place in your mind instantly. The same is true for a song.”
He has parlayed his work as a music-loving wine influencer into a burgeoning career as a podcast host. It was, in fact, his Instagram riff on Jung’s theory of Synchronicity that attracted the attention of the highly-regarded New York-based producer Lani Neumann, whose Necessary Media has worked with MTV, TLC and Oprah Winfey’s OWN, to name just a few of her clients. Together they launched The Black Wine Guy Experience podcast. The BGWE was launched during the pandemic, in October of 2020, but despite that, it is currently experiencing a meteoric rise, and he’s already on his second season.
His roster of guests is impressive and has included the fascinating and seasoned wine writer and Senior Editor at The Wine Spectator James Molesworth; popular sommeliers Dustin Wilson, MS, Jordan Salcito and Andre Mack; wine media personality and Napa Valley-based sommelier Amanda McCrossin; and wine critic Audrey Frick, to name just a few.
That’s an impressive lineup for an up-and-coming podcaster, but Towler knows his wine, and he’s more than up to the challenge. He has been a fine wine professional for over 20 years. He has worked in retail, wholesale, as a sommelier and, in 2000, became the first African American fine and rare wine auctioneer. At the time he was working at Acker, in New York.
During a nine-year stint living in Santa Barbara, California, he managed and was the sommelier at the Montecito Wine Bistro on Montecito’s famed Coast Village Road, haven to celebrities and the wealthy. It was there in 1999 that he coordinated one of the first and most high-profile public wine dinners, co-hosted by and featuring the wines of Gary Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards, arguably one of California’s most popular producers of vineyard-designated Pinot Noir. He remains fond of California’s Central Coast and often promotes wines from the region. “I believe you fall in love with the first wine region you visited.” For that reason, he says, “California’s Central Coast is very important to me.” He does believe California wines somehow still get a bad rap when compared to the wines of the Old World. “I don’t know why that is,” he says, somewhat flabbergasted. “After winning the Judgement of Paris…twice! I don’t know why they still don’t get the respect they deserve.” Towler speculates this may be because California wines are riper than Old World wines. But, he says, “It’s a fricken fruit! It’s supposed to be ripe.” That he enjoys riper fruit should not suggest his palate is monolithic or unsophisticated. Indeed, one of his favorite pastimes is to delve into lesser known and obscure wines. He enjoys telling me about an exciting case of Müller-Catoir orange wine he purchased.
Our talk eventually turns to wine scores and whether or not they remain relevant. Towler says he believes wine reviews in general are helpful. “What reviews do is give you a base line.” Would he like to see one of his reviews on a shelf talker at a fine wine retailer someday, and would he employ the well-established 100 point system? Towler remains uncertain what his scoring system may look like, but he says he might award wines fist bumps, rather than numbered scores. It’s a refreshing perspective and an approach I wouldn’t mind seeing myself. “It would be really cool to go into a store someday and see one of my reviews on a shelf talker, with maybe some hip hop lyrics and four fist bumps.”
He used to work in personal development, including a two year stint working for Jack Canfield as his personal trainer and kick boxing instructor. “There’s a part of me that really loves that world of transformation.” Perhaps this explains Towler’s adventurous spirit. Currently, in addition to being a podcaster, he supports his creative endeavors by working part-time as a wine buyer at Whole Foods. This is an intentional choice, for it keeps Towler connected with the everyday consumer and their needs.
Another way he connects with his audience is through his newsletters, which arrive in one’s email box unadorned and conversational in nature. He’s quick to tell me that he’s fine repelling people. “I sent out an email about the importance of justice with regard to honoring women, and some people dropped off my list. I’m fine with that. I don’t want people like that on my list. I’m not worried about losing followers. I want to cultivate relationships with the right kinds of people.”
When he’s working at Whole Foods, customers sometimes assume he doesn’t know about wines, even though he’s working the floor as a wine buyer. He tells of a woman who, when asked if she needed assistance, responded that she was looking for a bottle of Caymus. She went on to explain to him that Caymus is a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Towler says he wanted to respond by saying not only does he know Caymus, but he also knows Screaming Eagle and has six vintages at home. “I had one customer come in looking for Pinot.” She was hesitant to engage with Towler, so he volunteered a few Pinots he likes, including Marcassin and Kistler. She took note that his tastes indeed aligned with hers, and as a result became a great repeat customer. “Now she just comes in sometimes just to give me hug,” he says, with a huge smile. His name tag at Whole Foods simply reads: BWG.
Why “The Black Wine Guy”? “It’s very simple,” he says. “There are not a lot of Black people on the wine scene. I grew up around white people. I didn’t grow up in the inner city, so I’m very comfortable around white people. I just know how to navigate that world.” Towler tells me that when he really got into wine and started making the rounds at tastings, white people didn’t want to refer to him as a Black guy into wine. “They didn’t want to appear racist, so they’d be like, there’s this guy here, he knows a lot about wine, he’s about this tall, he’s got a blue shirt on.” He laughs recounting the story. “So I just started saying, Dude, I’m Black and I’m a wine guy. That’s just who I am. It’s an homage to being the only one in the room.”
He shares a story about being in Boise, Idaho for a marketing conference. He wanted to visit a well-known wine shop, City Center Wines, while he was there, but when he showed up, it was closed. He peeked through the windows and when a shop clerk spotted him, he told him through the glass window that they were closed. Towler responded, “But I’m the Black Wine Guy! and he let me in. I showed him my Instagram account. We tasted some wines together and I bought two bottles. It was pretty cool.” He has happily returned to the store since then.
Currently, Towler’s podcasts broadcast twice monthly, but he is working on sponsorship deals that will allow him to broadcast more frequently. “If all I had to do is wake up in the morning, have my coffee, write a little, walk my dog, do my kettlebells, and then go to the studio (he currently commutes into Manhattan to record his podcast at a professional studio), I’d be so happy. Right now I don’t plan to go into the studio for another week, and I’m just chomping at the bit. I’m jonesing for it; it’s so much fun. I would love to eventually publish two episodes a week. I do believe I have a voice and people are starting to listen, and I’m very grateful for that.”