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Staying calm amid the 'Pliny the Younger' clamor (w/video)


Since 2010, Russian River Brewing has become a little more adjusted to the fame. The beer, often known simply as "The Younger," is strictly rationed now to make sure it lasts for at least two weeks. They've installed crowd control stands and hired security to police the line. They refuse to put the beer in growlers. Natalie even launched a campaign that eventually forced eBay to quit allowing the black market trade in beers across state lines.

Release day this year was Friday, drawing hundreds of beer pilgrims to stand in a line around the block despite a steady, cold rain. Kegs of the precious brew will start shipping out to other select bars and distributorships around the country on Monday, setting off similar frenzies anywhere lucky enough to score some Pliny the Younger.

In the 10 years since the Cilurzos founded the brewpub on Fourth Street, Russian River Brewing has grown from an obscure outpost built on a shoestring to one of the world's best-known and sought-after breweries, thanks to rapturous reviews by drinkers and critics.

Vinnie Cilurzo also has become a leader in producing a specialized form of beer known as sours, produced with various bacteria and unusual yeasts familiar to fans of beers made in Belgium.

The brewery has grown to be a potent economic force in Santa Rosa. The annual two-week release of Pliny the Younger generates about $2.4 million for the local economy, according to a study by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board last year.

Yet with all this frantic demand, the Cilurzos defiantly refuse to expand beyond their current capacity — only about 14,000 barrels of beer per year, or about 434,000 gallons. To put that in perspective, Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma says it produced around 500,000 barrels last year. Even Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing, considered a modestly sized brewer, made more than 70,000 barrels in 2013.

"In the beer industry, a common theme is if you're not growing you're dying," said Vinnie, 43. "And yet we look at it the opposite. Why can't we be like a small boutique winery that goes out and buys 10 acres and puts a winery on it?"

The refusal to grow has earned Russian River a fair bit of critical comment online, with fans grumbling about their inability to find the beers. It has led to a supply so tight that the brewpub itself once ran out of bottles of the flagship Pliny the Elder, the brewery's top-selling product. Distributors can languish on a years-long waiting list to get any Russian River brews.

The Cilurzos, however, say they like it this way just fine. While they have toyed with expanding, the price tag easily would run into the millions, a cost they are not eager to take on. At the moment, they are doing well financially and enjoying greater success than they had ever expected.

"I don't know why they get so mad at us," Natalie said of the people who are put out that Russian River won't grow. "It's our business, and we have every right to run it the way we want. It's not like we're not making beer to piss people off."

At the heart of Russian River lies not the brewing equipment, or the jam-packed brewpub, but rather the partnership between Natalie and Vinnie. Friends say they are unusually well-matched as a couple and have managed to survive the unexpected fame and the strains of working together with grace. Get the couple in a room together and they quickly begin to finish each other's sentences, crack each other up, and riff in harmony about their passion for beer and their mutual business.

In practice, Vinnie handles the direct aspects of beer making, from selecting ingredients to brewing to deciding how to allocate the severely constrained supply of beer to bars and distributors fighting to get it. Natalie, meanwhile, falls back on her previous corporate experience in the wine industry to provide the business backbone: budgeting, marketing, supervising staff and paperwork, and riding herd on the accounts that handle the beer in four states where the brewery distributes: California, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Going into business together "was a huge leap of faith," Natalie said. "That's kind of a little bit of a strain ... (but) we always knew we would have different roles and we were comfortable with that. Do we talk about the brewery every night at home? Absolutely."

Indeed, it seems like much of their lives revolve around beer. They travel together for conferences, trade shows and beer events — a prime time to talk strategy without the day-to-day distractions of the brewery, they say. Their circle of friends includes some of the biggest names in America's exploding craft brew scene.

"Vinnie and Natalie are even better as people than they are as brewers and business owners," said Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewing. They live by the philosophy of "don't let work take over your life and be in control of what you're doing."

Vinnie Cilurzo even agreed to get himself ordained as a minister, in the Universal Life Church, in order to officiate in the 2012 wedding of Brian Grossman, son of Sierra Nevada Brewing founder Ken Grossman and one of the Cilurzos' closest friends in the industry.

"I've never seen such a devoted couple" as Natalie and Vinnie, Grossman said. "You can't sort of take them as individuals sometimes. You've got to take them as a package."

The Cilurzos met growing up in Temecula. Vinnie's parents were pioneers in the wine industry in that corner of Southern California. Even at a young age, he and sister Chenin were working in the family winery.

Natalie's parents ran a garage and tow truck service, but she too was drawn to the wine business, working in area wineries in high school, applying wine labels and doing various chores.

Their first date came on Vinnie's 20th birthday.

"I asked, 'What do you want to do with your life,' and he said, 'Own a brewery,'" recalled Natalie, who is a year older than her husband. "I laughed, because he wasn't even old enough to buy beer; I had to buy the beer."

Trying to get them to explain the story of their marriage is not easy. They describe it as if it evolved naturally and inevitably: they met, they dated, they married, they started a business. Simple.

They are quick to add that they do have hobbies and interests outside of their business. The couple never had children — "not by design; it just never happened," Natalie said — so they have time to devote to business, travel and hobbies. Natalie likes classic cars and trucks, an interest passed down from her father. Vinnie likes to cook — he's particularly fond of making ice cream. Together, the couple enjoys NASCAR and getting out to eat good meals.

But through the whole story runs beer. Vinnie discovered home-brewing several years before that fateful date with Natalie. A trip to Europe opened his palate to the amazing variety of beers that could be made from a few simple ingredients.

"I remember the winery smelled on a lot of days more like a brewery than a winery, since Vinnie was home-brewing in some corner," sister Chenin Carlton said.

In the early 1990s, Vinnie met local businessman Dave Stovall, who had been contemplating jumping into the booming microbrew movement. They rented an undistinguished industrial space, cobbled together some used brewing equipment and went into business as "Blind Pig Brewing," a sly reference to a Prohibition-era slang term for the unlabeled mason jar in which bartenders would serve high-quality bootlegged liquor. The business quickly developed a cult following, based on Vinnie's skillful hand with beer and his status as a well-known local boy.

"The doggone thing began growing faster than we imagined ... limos began pulling up from the wineries," with tourists demanding to try the beer they had heard about from locals, Stovall said.

Despite its tiny production and local distribution, the beer gained a measure of national fame after it came to the attention of the producers of TV show "NYPD Blue," who would buy kegs of Vinnie's beer for their crew parties. That led to deals to use the brewery's logo — a cartoon pig wearing dark glasses and carrying a cane indicating its blindness — in a variety of TV shows in the '90s. That logo, and the original recipe for the flagship IPA, survive in slightly modified form in the Blind Pig IPA produced by Russian River today.

Financial success, however, proved elusive for the original brewery. The partners split, with Vinnie selling his interest and Stovall declaring bankruptcy in 1997. To this day, however, the brewery remains influential and well remembered in the area, Stovall said. A new generation of brewers credit Vinnie and his brews for inspiring them.

Vinnie's beer "is not an everyman's beer," Stovall said. "But for a particular market, they love it. They still talk about it."

Around the time Blind Pig collapsed, Korbel Champagne Cellars wanted to add a new bubbly beverage to its portfolio — beer. The winery hired Cilurzo and established the first version of Russian River Brewing in Guerneville.

That experiment lasted only five years, when Korbel decided it had little taste for brewing. Natalie and Vinnie decided to take a risk and buy the rights to the name and recipes, including Pliny the Elder, a hopped-up version of the Blind Pig IPA he developed at Korbel.

The decision to go into business, like so much in their story as a couple, just seems natural in their retelling.

"I was in the wine business and I was going down this really corporatey path ... I was losing my passion for the wine industry because I wasn't working in the winery ... So I was having a lot more fun with Vinnie, going to beer festivals and visiting him at the brewery," Natalie said.

With the help of a pair of restaurateurs from Fort Bragg, they found a location on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa and cobbled together an eclectic brewhouse.

Once more at the helm of his own brewery, Vinnie was determined to succeed. He had a couple of simple rules, starting with no six-packs. The investment in inventory of bottles and cardboard holders is just too much for a small, underfunded startup brewery, he said, so he started as a draft-only brewery. Even when he added a bottling line in 2008, he put the beers only in larger bottles like the ones he had seen in Europe.

The failure of Blind Pig and the Korbel beer experiment seems to underlie Natalie and Vinnie's determined resistance to expanding Russian River too quickly.

"Everybody's opening a brewery, everybody's expanding," Natalie said. "It's like when is there going to be a market correction? ... We don't want to be $20 million in debt when that day comes."

For the moment, however, there seems to be no limit to the potential of the business. Despite competition from newer cult beers around the country, the venerable Plinys still occupy top spots on lists by beer fans and critics. Distributors say they have trouble keeping in stock what little of the beer they get.

Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing in San Diego, is a longtime friend of the couple and handles the distribution of Russian River across Southern California. He said 80 percent of the complaints his distribution division gets are somehow related to someone who wants, but can't get, Russian River products.

"We would never not want to carry them because we love them ... but boy, do we get a lot of flak," he said.

"We're managing a brand where the demand is higher than the supply," Vinnie said. "Everyone says, 'Oh, that must be a good problem to have.' But I say, 'Yeah, but it's still a problem.'"

Among the problems is disappointed consumers and distributors sometimes get angry over being unable to get the beer they want, or even as much as they ordered, and it has fallen to Natalie to deal with them. Despite her normally sweet demeanor, she has become a feared force in maintaining the standards the brewery demands of the bars, stores and distributors that sell her product.

Nearly every week, she said, she finds herself "dropping accounts that are abusing the privilege of carrying our beers and disrespecting their customers."

Offenses can include storing the fragile Pliny the Elder on warm shelves, which can degrade the hop flavor, or displaying the Russian River logo without permission. Perhaps most serious, however, is charging exorbitant prices. The brewery cannot force a retailer to charge a certain price, but Natalie is not shy about using the high-demand, low-supply ratio to cut off accounts that seem to be profiting excessively from the frenzy over its beers.

In 2012, for example, Russian River learned that a Sacramento beer bar was proposing to charge customers $45 for a single glass of Pliny the Younger, accompanied by a hamburger. Despite a quick apology from the then-owner, the bar has not received any Russian River beers since.

And in 2013, Russian River pulled out of the state of Washington entirely, saying the state's liquor laws made it impossible to protect its brand by being choosy about where and how to sell the product. That left a legion of disappointed beer fans in the state, but seems to have left a bad taste in the mouth of some retailers.

Steve Body, a Seattle beer blogger and beverage consultant for online beer retailer LetsPour.com, said Russian River's focus on managing how the product is handled and sold is excessive.

"You can't control everything that happens to the beer after you sell it," said Body, who locked horns with Natalie when Russian River was still distributed in Washington. "What are you going to do, come into someone's house and instruct them how to pour the beer?"

Both Natalie and Vinnie are unrepentant in the face of critics. They are fiercely protective of their brand, of the 75 people who work for them, and of their vision of a small, manageable brewery.

"We work hard, and we're true to ourselves and our families and our employees, and we live our lives ethically and morally and run our business legally," she said, "and we're not willing to compromise — for anybody."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)