Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo has become a beer industry giant, but he started out making wine. It wasn’t until he grew impatient with the fermentation process that he embraced beer. The self-taught brewer helped launch Blind Pig Brewing Co. in Temecula, but sold his share in 1996 and moved with wife Natalie to Sonoma County. He caught on with Russian River Brewing Company, a new brewery founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville. In 2002, the Cilurzos bought Russian River and moved into a Santa Rosa brewpub, where they became known for their barrel-aged beers and IPAs, including Blind Pig IPA, a remnant from Cilurzo’s SoCal roots. He recently discussed his background and approach.
What distinguishes Russian River from other breweries?
That’s a hard question because there are so many great breweries right now. What makes us different is our main beer that we make is a double IPA, Pliny the Elder is more than 50% production these days. There aren’t too many breweries whose main beer is 8% ABV. Our barrel beer program really makes us different from what’s out there. We make 1000 barrels of sour, barrel-aged beers. Those are unique little animals compared to our mainstream beers. At our brewpub, we have at least two sour aged beers on tap all the time.
How did you become so interested in beer?
I started out in the wine industry, then started homebrewing somewhere along the way. My hobby got out of control and little by little, I just liked the whole basis of brewing, and everything about beermaking. Initially it was a lot to do with the fact that I loved the idea of it, coming from the winemaking background. I could make beer in 3-4 weeks instead of wine, which was a minimum of six months. That was the coolest thing to see what you’re fermenting in a few weeks. It’s ironic that we’re making barrel beers that take a minimum of six months or more like 9-24 months to make. Plenty the Elder is 24-day beer, which is more of a traditional brewing cycle.
Do you have a first beer memory?
Probably Lucky Lager, going back to when I was working in the winery. The old adage is, ”It takes a lot of beer to make wine.” There was always beer around. Lucky Lager was one that was around that my parents drank. My sister liked it because it had a little game under the caps, a little puzzle.
What was the first beer that you brewed?
When I was homebrewing, the first beer was just some wacky, whacked out recipe. I couldn’t even remember what kind of style it was, but once I got into it, I was brewing IPAs most of the time.
Where’d you grow up?
Temecula, in southern California. After high school, I moved to San Diego to go to college and that’s when I really started homebrewing, probably in 1989.
Where’d you attend college?
Grossmont, but I never graduated. Once I made my first home brew, that’s what I knew I wanted to do the rest of my life.
Do you have any brewing mentors?
There are people who I certainly look up to now, but I learned it all myself. Instead of going to work for someone, I started off the bat with my own business, so I kind of learned on my own a lot, read a lot of books, experimented on my own, flew by the seat of my pants.
How did you end up at Russian River?
Russian River has a unique background in that we were actually started by Korbel Champagne Cellars, the largest sparkling wine producer in America…they started the brewery in ‘97 and hired me to run the brewery for them. It was good timing, since Natalie and I just moved up to Sonoma. I ran their brewery for six years until 2003. We shut the brewery down at Korbel for a year, got our brewpub up and running in 2004. We’ve had our production brewery now for two years.
Who are some other brewers that you respect?
In America, definitely Sierra Nevada. They’ve obviously been around a long time. It’s their longevity, attention to detail and quality. Nobody has that precision. It’s evident when you walk around the brewery. Orval only makes one beer, but it’s a super unique beer and I love those kinds of flavors. Allagash is another brewery that I respect. Jolly Pumpkin does all barrel-aged beers, kind of like us. It’s nice to be able to communicate with other brewers that do similar types of beers.
What’s the newest beer that you brewed, and what was your approach?
We’re to a point where we’ve got so many old recipes that we just rotate through. The newest beer was back in July. We’ve been rotating through our Belgian beers and session beers. We have 25 recipe beers in addition to our year-round beers…We have very few beers that fall into a season.
If you could drink one more glass of beer, what would it be?
That’s easy. That’d be Orval. Anyone that knows me knows how much I love Orval. It’s just a beautiful, well-crafted beer.
Any expansion plans?
Our production brewery was a 4 million dollar expansion and we’re already at capacity. We certainly have room for more tanks, but it’s not our style to just grow and grow and grow. We plan to stay small. We’re pretty content. If there are markets that want our beer but we can’t get beer to them, it’s not the end of the world to not be able to take care of every market. For instance, Boston wants our beer and we can’t get our beer out there. We won’t grow just because there’s a market that wants our beer, which pisses some people off, but I don’t want to become a slave to the business.