Saul Levine: The Great American Entrepreneur Gives Goliath a Run for his Money

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I am happy to report that the Pioneering Spirit is alive and well in Los Angeles, embodied in this instance by Mr. Saul Levine. “At a very young age I was attracted to the industry and wanted to be in it,” says broadcaster and vintner Levine. “I had goals and set out to meet the challenges.”

Owner and founder of one of the last independently owned radio stations in the Unites States, Levine talks passionately about two things that give people joy — great radio and great wine. These things are seemingly unrelated, but forever paired in the lives and activities of Levine, his family and P.J. Ochlan, general manager, Cobblestone Wine and creative director, Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters, which includes KKGO “Go Country” 105.1 FM, KKJZ “K-Jazz” 88.1 FM, KMZT “K-Mozart” 1260 AM.

In 1959 Levine launched Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters in Southern California. P.J. Ochlan describes Levine as “a true pioneer. He won the right to broadcast on the 105.1 FM band, hiked up Mt. Wilson and broadcast his first record from the transmitter.” That’s how Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters, Inc. was born. Levine quietly reminds me that it was “hard work and keeping after things” that enabled him to achieve his goals. “The first station I built took several years to put together. There was no instant gratification.” “Your strategy when things get tough?” I ask. Levine’s answer is simple: “just work harder.” Then he adds, “I just noticed recently, more than ever, people saying ‘that’s too hard’ or ‘that can’t be done’ and that was never in my vocabulary.”

A well-read man, Levine maintains, “I’m passionate about music — in particular classical music, jazz and, more recently, country.” But it’s Ochlan who tells me of the dogged determination and foresight which anchored Levine’s dedication to broadcasting, his way. “He put himself through law school and worked as a lawyer to support the radio when it wasn’t making money.”

Levine grew up on a farm in Michigan. Success in the radio business led him back to his roots to start Cobblestone Vineyards in 1971. With his wife Anita he purchased a 50-acre property, planted exclusively Chardonnay strains in what has become Monterey’s Arroyo Seco AVA (American Viticultural Area).

This first vineyard is where Cobblestone got its name. The soil is densely packed with cobblestones, known locally as “Greenfield potatoes,” which have a positive effect on drainage and temperature. Consequently, the Levines sold grapes for 30 years, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the Cobblestone label released its own wines. “Growing up in a rural area inspired me to go out and achieve what I have with my vineyards,” notes Levine.

Cobblestone has since expanded from one location to three. The additional vineyards are in Napa Valley and, most recently, New Zealand. Accolades for Cobblestone wines continue to pour in. Most recently, the debut Pinot Noir from Cobblestone’s estate vineyard in Martinborough, New Zealand, was awarded both Champion Pinot Noir and overall Champion Wine of the Show at the 2010 Romeo Bragato Wine Awards. But Levine reminds me that this result is a testament to hard work and good ol’ fashioned patience. “With vineyards, too, it’s a very slow process. You plant your vines, then you have to wait five years to first harvest and then to get your top quality you have to wait seven, eight, nine, ten years.”

“I never had a problem standing alone or being independent in business, because I grew up with that. My father owned a small business and it was against the chains and the big stores. I must say that today there is more of a concentration of activity in the hands of fewer and fewer companies, there are fewer and fewer Mom and Pops. We’re standing firm against this and we’re managing to compete against the big conglomerates.” Indeed, boutique and family-owned businesses are a great antidote to the cultural homogenization from food source to one-stop-shop big box stores that are overtaking modern life.

“Yes, it’s culturally important,” maintains Levine. ”I want my children to sense this and carry on. Both my children work here in the business with me.”

Stephanie Levine, Saul’s daughter, station manager, K-Jazz and general counsel, describes her father as a trailblazer. “He’s very creative, shrewd, intelligent and always ahead of the curve. Someone who created the environment of potential.”

Saul’s son, Michael Levine, is station manager, Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters. Of his father he says, “He’s always trying to help people. He was able to translate a passion of his not only into a business but an institution. Not only in Los Angeles but as a national platform.”

Levine continues, “America is being dumbed down to the mental level of a 10-to-12 year-old and this is really appalling. From my own perspective, I have been contending with this. We have to overcome this mediocrity. That’s really been my life’s work.”

P.J. Ochlan, Levine’s right hand man, says he hails of “the breed of multi-hyphenates.” A veteran actor, comedian, host, sommelier (Patina) and now general manager for Cobblestone Wine and radio creative director/on-air personality, P.J. Ochlan embodies the idiom “‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person.’ My connection with the arts has always been the underlying passion of everything I do.”

Ochlan emphasizes that striving for excellence is essential. “Everything we do, we try to do as well as possible. We fill holes with our radio stations — wanting to provide for the underserved out there in the community. We try to create the best programming, the best wine.”

Chatting with these dynamic personalities left this freelance writer feeling like someone perched on Mt. Wilson’s transmitter for a fleeting moment and who, privy to the view from that vantage point, could gaze there-from with the can-do attitude, and irrepressible sense of the possible with which David gave Goliath a run for his money. As for the wine, the proof is in the tasting. To that I say salut!