Russian River Brewing Company (RRBC) was originally owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, California and was founded on their historic and beautiful property amidst vineyards and redwoods near the Russian River. When Korbel decided to get out of the beer business in 2003, they generously offered the brewmaster, Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife Natalie the rights to the brand. Russian River Brewing might be something completely different now if it weren't for this incredible opportunity.
In the early days on the Korbel property, Vinnie not only brewed the beer, but made the sales calls and deliveries as well. Eventually they hired a sales/delivery guy to help with all of that so he could focus on brewing! Korbel planted a small hop field where Vinnie received a "field" education on growing and brewing with "wet" hops. It was from those amazingly fresh hops, grown just a few yards away, that he made his first wet hops brew, "Hop-Time Harvest Ale".
While the brewery was still operating at Korbel, the owner of the winery bought Lake Sonoma Winery at the top of Dry Creek in Healdsburg, California. There, they let Vinnie build a second brewery (adjacent to the winery) with its own tasting room and a million dollar view. The brewery at Lake Sonoma was only open for about a year, but Vinnie gained invaluable experience building a brewery from the ground up, and it was there that he started experimenting with beer in wine barrels.
On April 3, 2004, Vinnie and Natalie reopened RRBC as a brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa to great success and began self-distributing to nearby clients. In 2008, they opened a production brewery about 1 mile from their brewpub allowing them to triple production, take on more accounts locally, and distribute some beer in 4 more states.
As of 2012, RRBC employs over 60 part-time and full-time employees, and gives back to their community via charitable events such as their month-long Breast Cancer Fundraiser in October. The pub has become a community gathering place as well as a beer tourism destination. They also support local bands by hosting free live shows at the pub every weekend.
As it turns out, demand is still greater than the supply, but they prefer to grow their business organically while focusing on efficiencies and quality. For now, it is easier to make better beer than it is to make more beer!
The history of Russian River Brewing Company would be incomplete without a little background on the people who own it, operate it, and are passionate about their brewery and craft beer in general!
Vinnie grew up in a winemaking family in Temecula, California, where his parents owned Cilurzo Family Vineyards from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. Vinnie and his sister, Chenin, learned all aspects of owning and operating a small family winery. By the time he was 18 years old Vinnie had taught himself to homebrew in the basement of the winery. In 1994, Vinnie, a business partner and an investor opened Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, California. They owned it for about 3 years during which time Vinnie earned awards at the Great American Beer Festival and the critical acclaim of being the first brewer to make a Double I.P.A. commercially (Blind Pig Inaugural Ale in 1994).
In 1997, Vinnie and his wife, Natalie, moved to Sonoma County, where Vinnie took a job as the sole brewer at Russian River Brewing Company, then owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars. While at Korbel, Vinnie started experimenting with brewing funky beers in wine barrels (he had just one barrel at the time) and created RRBC's flagship beer, Pliny the Elder. In 2003, Korbel decided to get out of the beer business and sold the Russian River Brewing Company brand to Vinnie and Natalie.
Over the years Vinnie has become a well-known brewer in the craft-beer community by not only making great beers but for his innovation and willingness to share everything he learns along the way. Vinnie has earned dozens of awards for his beers at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. But his most prestigious professional accolade came when he received the Brewer's Association Russell Schehrer Award For Innovation in Craft Brewing in 2008. He continues to be innovative and enjoys playing with a wide variety of funky bugs and critters with 600 wine barrels! One could say he has gone back to his roots!
Vinnie's sister, Chenin, and her husband, Sean, have their own wine brand, Twist Wine Company, in Pacific City, Oregon. Vince and Audrey Cilurzo are enjoying retirement in Murrieta, California.
Natalie and Vinnie have now been together longer than they haven't, which is, in itself, one life's great accomplishments! Their first date was in 1990 on Vinnie's 20th birthday, which meant Natalie, ironically, had to buy the beer! Natalie comes from a small business-owning family, as well, but knew a lot more about cars than beer. But it was her interest in the wine business that took her to Temecula where she met Vinnie. Natalie started working at Menghini Winery in Julian, California, in the mountains of San Diego at just 16 years old, labeling wine bottles on weekends. This was the beginning of a 19 year career in the wine industry for her while maintaining a presence in the background of the brewing career Vinnie had chosen. Natalie eventually earned a Bachelor's Degree in Business from Sonoma State University. During that time she worked at several wineries, Silver Oak being her favorite. After college, she spent several years at Kendall-Jackson and a quick jaunt at Franciscan Estates doing sales analysis and gaining experience in working with distributors. It was not until Korbel offered Vinnie and Natalie the Russian River Brewing brand that she decided she was ready to switch to beer! She kept her day job while they wrote a business plan and convinced family and friends to invest in their little brewery project. She left the wine business forever a couple of weeks before opening their brewpub in Downtown Santa Rosa. Natalie not-so-fondly remembers that spring day opening the doors to let the first customers in at 4:00 in the afternoon with 28 employees, several months of rent past due, and $6,000 in the bank. One of her favorite quotes is "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"