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Renowned chef Thomas Keller has a palate that's not easily impressed. And yet the brews of one lanky, rustic, unshaven man turned his head.

Vinnie Cilurzo is no ordinary brewer.

At 39, he makes highbrow artisan beers that push the brewing envelope at Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewery, and that's why Keller tapped him to make a specialty brew for him.

"As I understood it, Keller was looking for a beer that a line cook could drink a couple of after an eight-hour shift on the line," said Cilurzo, who aimed to fill that need when he developed the beer he dubbed White Apron.

The beer is being served at Keller's Bouchon restaurants in Yountville and Beverly Hills, and it may be offered at Bouchon in Las Vegas and Ad Hoc in Yountville before long.

Keller may be Cilurzo's most high-profile fan, but it turns out he's one of many.

The brewer has a cult following, with his February release of Pliny The Younger forcing his fans to endure a 3-hour wait, lined up for blocks to get into his Russian River Brewery on Fourth Street.

"It was nuts," said Cilurzo, with a laugh. "We had people from Japan, Sweden and 20 states come just to get a taste. We had people from all over the country. .<TH>.<TH>.It just exploded. I was too busy, to be honest, but we'll be ready next year now that we know it has a life of its own."

His cult standing is also evident from a recent worldwide beer competition. In January, the website ratebeer.com had a "Rate Beer Best" competition and Cilurzo's beers came in sixth place.

Two-million-plus consumers rated 110,000 beers, and other North Bay brewers didn't fare as well, with Bear Republic in Healdsburg the highest-scoring competitor in 37th place.

Joseph Tucker of ratebeer.com said what sets Cilurzo apart from other brewers is his passionate experimentation, particularly when it comes to second fermentations.

"Vinnie has been doing this for a long time," he said, "and he is truly a pioneer of aging beer in oak barrels."

Cilurzo recently popped into the Russian River Brewery to offer a tasting of these barrel-aged brews. The most distinct was a bottling called Supplication, a brown ale aged in a French oak, pinot noir barrel that had been partially filled with pitted dried cherries. It's a tasty concoction: pinot meets beer. The brown ale had notes of concentrated cherry, smoke and spice. Was it a beer or a wine? Who cares? The striking blend played well.

Tucker said Cilurzo is a bold risk-taker because he uses a yeast known as Brett (Brettanomyces), which is a challenge for brewers and winemakers alike to control.

Cilurzo knows it can make large quantities of beer taste flawed, but the upside is that if used right it can infuse his brews with flavors of earthiness, leather and smoke.

"For me, the most enjoyment is making beer from wine barrels," Cilurzo said, with a quirky smile. "I like the unpredictability of it. It's exciting."

Natalie, Cilurzo's wife of 20 years and manager of the brewery, describes her husband and business partner as "very driven, very focused, a creative innovator."

She reflected on their first date.

"I bought the beer," she said. "I was 21 and he was 20. I asked him, &‘What do you want to be when you grow up?' He said, &‘I want to own a brewery.' I said, &‘How do you know? You're not even old enough to buy the beer.' He said, &‘I just know.'<TH>"

Why a brewer and not a winemaker? After all, Cilurzo grew up amid grape vines. His parents were grape growers before founding Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery in 1978 in Temecula.

"I pretty much grew up with fermentation in my blood," Cilurzo joked.

But Cilurzo's defining moment was when he went to Rosemont College in San Diego and he and his roommates start homebrewing.

"I got the bug," he said. "That's when I was certain I wanted to own a brewery."

When Cilurzo came to Sonoma County, he ran the brewery for Korbel from 1997 to 2003, ultimately buying the name Russian River Brewery from the winery before moving it to downtown Santa Rosa.

Today, Cilurzo said he and Natalie are completely immersed in the beer culture.

"Most things in our life are beer-related," he said, showing his wedding ring, which had hops on it. (Hops, for the uninitiated, are the flowers of the female hop plant, added as a spice in brewing.)

Cilurzo also said he and Natalie recently took a brew-tasting trip to Belgium. The couple is at home in their brewery, where they spend countless hours.

"You end up not worrying about the number of hours because I love making beer," said Cilurzo.

"I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't do it."

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.