CALLING THE TUNES
His cutting-edge podcast is a departure from traditional wine industry culture, but MJ Towler is boldly thrusting forward. Joel Randell sits down with the renegade host for an in-depth perspective
In today’s over-saturated landscape of social media wine influencers, it’s often hard to separate the wheat from the chaff – those who are sincerely knowledgeable about the dynamics of terroirs and viticulture versus those more concerned with the glamor and glitz of likes and sponsorships. But MJ Towler, who hosts the popular and fast-growing podcast The Black Wine Guy Experience, can spot the latter from a mile away.
“In 2017, I noticed an entire wine community on Instagram, but it was mostly just attractive women holding bottles,” Towler says with a slight scoff. “I was like, ‘Ok… but what’s that got to do with the wine?’ It was purely influencer culture. ‘I’m pretty. I have a lot of followers. Send me your wine and pay me to promote your product.’ For me, there was absolutely no wine knowledge behind any of it.”
It was observations like these that were the catalyst for Towler’s podcast, launched in the middle of the pandemic in the fall of 2020. He’s already recorded over 80 episodes of BWGE with various wine enthusiasts, including Empathy Wines co-founder Gary Vaynerchuk, former NBA star JJ Redick, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, James Beard award-winning wine writer Jon Bonné, and acclaimed restaurateur Drew Nieporent (of Nobu fame) – just to name a few luminaries he has hosted.
“I started The Black Wine Guy Experience as a spoof, a satire from what I saw in this faux wine influencer world,” he admits. “Even wine education had become commodified. People started to go, ‘I’m going to get this certificate, and I’m going to become a wine educator.’ Even becoming a certified sommelier was no longer a big deal. Are you good with people? Do you know the wine basics? Can you sell wine on the floor of the restaurant? That was it. It wasn’t like they studied in books or had real wine knowledge.”
Towler, however, possesses a wealth of wine knowledge – an impressive 25 years’ worth. Though his podcast is just two years into production, BWGE is far from his first excursion into the wine world. And, like many contemporary wine connoisseurs, Towler’s path into the industry was a somewhat unlikely one. After graduating from Rutgers University School of Law in his home state of New Jersey, and even subsequently passing the bar exam, he suddenly decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer.
“At orientation of my first year in law school, the dean said, ‘Look around you… these are your colleagues for the next three years.’ But I looked around at the other lawyers and I knew they weren’t my people. I didn’t want to be around them, they seemed lame to me. A lot of people in law think they’re smarter than they actually are, like the Dunning-Kruger effect. But I finished because I had a young baby to support. And I also knew as a young black man in our society, learning as much as I could about the law could never hurt me,” Towler chuckles.
Shortly after finishing law school in 1996, MJ was introduced through a mutual friend to John Kapon, the owner and chairman of the iconic Acker Wines company in New York City. After the two became closely acquainted, Kapon made Towler an offer he couldn’t refuse: a job at Acker as a retailer by day, and a wine tasting host in the evenings drinking the finest wines in the world on a nightly basis.
“I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time,” Towler admits. “I knew wine was a luxury product; I knew wine was a whole different world; I saw the sophisticated people who drank wine. Plus, it was in New York City. So, I told him, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.”
The opportunity submerged Towler into the esoteric, luxury world of fine and rare wines. He worked on the retail floor of the wine shop during the day, and then went upstairs for the shop’s evening wine tastings to pour for Acker’s guests. Tasting tickets could reach up to $400 per person, Towler says, with rare wines that dated back to the 1950s and 1960s – some going as far back as the 1920s. He was able to indulge and experience many of the wines himself, which forged his palate and expertise for vintage wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley in France.
“It was the most incredible wine education because I was able to taste wine that most people will never taste, or even be around, for that matter. These were literally the finest wines in the world.”
After cutting his teeth in rare wines at Acker for about a year, MJ began taking part in the iconic company’s high-end wine auctions. Soon after, he became the first ever African American fine and rare wine auctioneer, in less than three years.
Now, with his wine expertise firmly cemented in 25 years of experience, Towler is marching forward in the industry with The Black Wine Guy Experience podcast, and there are no signs of him stopping. Recently, Wine Enthusiast magazine named him in their list of the Future 40 Tastemakers & Innovators of 2022. His approach on the podcast is authoritative, but progressive and fun; engaging, and conversational. And, unlike some podcasts, it’s certainly not bourgeois, as proven by his cutting-edge guest list of music DJs, athletes and restaurateurs. A word of caution: you may hear language on the BWGE podcast.
“My podcast is intentionally not stuffy,” Towler says unapologetically. “I could easily wax poetic about wines. But that’s not really the way I speak, and I wanted the podcast to be authentic to who I am. I’ve had guests who are luminaries in wine culture and they’ve never said to me, ‘You should tone down your language.’ So, you’ll often hear me use some language because that’s the way I talk. I follow the conversation, I connect with my guests and it’s very organic.”
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