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The Red Wines Fueling ‘The Black Wine Guy Experience’ Podcast

Expert MJ Towler shares his favorite California wines

Janice Williams By May 31, 2022
MJ Towler photo illustration
Photo illustration by Pix

MJ Towler is all about the story. Curious by nature, he thrives by hearing the who, what, and why that catapulted someone to where they are now. He is also passionate about the social norms and ways of thinking that have shaped the people he talks to. And then there is wine. 

“Wine is a time capsule, and it’s the winemaker’s life in that bottle. What was going on in that person’s life that year? What were they doing? How did they do it? There’s a story in that bottle,” says Towler. 

For the love of the story

As the host of The Black Wine Guy Experience podcast, Towler, who’s worked across the wine industry for more than 20 years, chases the fascinating stories of wine professionals like Windows on the World of Wine founder Kevin Zraly and Harmon Skurnik of Skurnik Wines & Spirits, cult-favorite winemakers like Dan Petroski of Massican Winery, and celebrated sommeliers including Lee Campbell, Philippe André, and Andrea Robinson, among others. 

Towler uses the hour-or-so episodes to tap into the human beings behind the titles and the interesting tidbits that led guests to where they are today. 

“I want to know your story. What do we have in common? How’d you grow up? Why this, why that? People come on and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never told this story.’ That’s what I like,” says Towler. “I want to know the story you’ve never told before.”

So far, the formula has paid off. Since launching at the height of the pandemic in 2020, Towler’s podcast has risen in popularity. He’s already on season four, and there are plenty of new episodes in the pipeline. 

And to think, the podcast almost didn’t happen. 

Sharing the experience

“I wanted to have a podcast in like 2003 when they first started becoming a thing, but I never did it. My wife bought me the best recorder, the best microphone. And I never did it because I’m more of a visionary, not an integrator per se,” Towler jokes. 

Instead, Towler posted pictures of wine bottles on social media. It started as a spoof, he says, and gained a following just as he decided to take a break from the platform. Towler’s family urged him to keep the account going, and when he returned to the platform, he discovered a community of followers who missed his posts and wanted more. 

That inspired him to go beyond just posting snapshots of wine. 

MJ Towler Instagram post of wines

MJ Towler on Instagram @BlackWineGuy

“I started coming on camera after George Floyd happened. And that’s when I decided I would go for it and start a podcast. Then my producer reached out to me. It was just luck,” says Towler. 

As for why Towler dubbed his podcast “The Black Wine Guy Experience,” well, that stems from his own story of working in wine.

Having traded in a career as a lawyer for the wine industry, Towler has tasted and sold some of the most sought-after wines in the world. He was the first Black American fine wine and rare wine auctioneer, a position he snagged during his days at Acker Wines in New York. He served the rich and famous for nine years while working as a manager and sommelier at the former Montecito Wine Bistro in Santa Barbara, California. And he’s helped introduce everyday people to the bottles he loves as a wine buyer at Whole Foods.

Throughout his journey, Towler has, in many cases, been the only person that looks like him in the room. His experience gave him a unique perspective that he fully embraces and one that his podcast guests and listeners appreciate. Towler’s work has also resonated with young people. 

“I’ve had young people come to me, but I always tell them what will get you further is getting good at your craft. It’s all about the craft. I’m happy to inspire people. But to be inspired, that comes from within. That’s not anything I’m doing. I’m just an example. What you take from what I’ve done is really up to you,” says Towler. 

Craving California

Though wine has become the vehicle for telling the stories of others, it continues to play the leading role in Towler’s daily life. He drinks plenty of it with his wife, and the couple will often play the game of bottle hunting for wines that best pair with the meals they cook together at home in New Jersey.

A lover of a wide variety and styles of wine, naturally, it’s the bottles that are connected to his personal wine story he enjoys the most. Those wines are usually from California, the home of the first bottle that “opened my eyes to certain things about wine and really made me think about what I was drinking,” he says. 

“It was around 1994. I was in my mid-20s in law school. A woman I was on a date with bought a bottle of Fetzer Gewürztraminer. I thought it was so exotic. I had only really had white Zinfandel before that,” says Towler. 

Since then, Towler has been sold on wines from the Gold Coast. He will be drinking plenty of them as he gears up for more of “The Black Wine Guy Experience.” Towler plans at least two episodes per week in the new season, which means even more wine stories are on the way.  

He shares a few of his favorites below. 

Bottles to try:

bottle of The Pinot Project California Pinot Noir 2020

The Pinot Project California Pinot Noir 2020 (~$12)

“I love Pinot Noir. I love it all from everywhere. But this is a great value bottle that really shows how much California can do with a little,” Towler says about The Pinot Project wines. Grapes come from vineyards across California’s coastal regions, including Monterey, San Benito, and Suisun Valley. The mashup produces a harmonious wine with ripeness and depth. “It’s a tasty and accessible way to show off California.”

bottle of Dancing Crow Old Stake Lake County Red Blend 2020

Dancing Crow Old Stake Lake County Red Blend 2020 (~$45)

Towler enjoys food just as much as he loves wine. When he’s in the mood for meat, he reaches for Dancing Crow Vineyards “deep, dark, delicious” blend of Zinfandel, Cinsault, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Touriga Naçional, Primitivo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and field grapes. Towler loves drinking the wine with burgers and braised meats, but the history of the vines is what truly sparks his interest. “This is the type of wine that can really help you learn about old vines and really understand California wine. The vineyards go back to 1901, so there’s a lot of history with this wine,” he says.

bottle of Ledge Vineyards Bien Nacido Santa Barbara County Syrah 2019

Ledge Vineyards Bien Nacido Santa Barbara County Syrah 2019 (~$65)

Towler became a big fan of Ledge Vineyards after meeting winemaker Mark Adams online during the pandemic and hearing the story behind this deep purple, full-bodied wine. Ledge makes wines in Paso Robles, Adams’ native home. However, he uses fruit from Santa Barbara for this particular bottle as an homage to his wife’s hometown. “I like that this tastes like a tar-flecked blueberry pop tart with a side of bacon, but I like the story behind this wine even more. I love the fruit that they work with. You can tell both Mark and his wife’s heritage is reflected in the wine,” Towler says.