Windsor expects economic windfall from Russian River Brewing Co. opening

The town of 28,000 exploring ways to capitalize on hundreds of thousands of beer lovers expected to visit annually.|

Congratulations, Windsor. Your town just landed one of the biggest economic development prizes in recent local memory with the $50 million Russian River Brewing Co. brewery and restaurant.

The central question now for elected officials and business leaders in the town of about 28,000 is how to leverage this new destination and widespread buzz generated by Russian River to lift other local businesses.

The longstanding Russian River brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa hosts an estimated 350,000 customers annually. Furthermore, its annual Pliny the Younger specialty craft beer release in February contributed $3.3 million alone in economic benefits to Sonoma County.

The 10-acre Windsor site off Highway 101 at the corner of Mitchell and Conde lanes - which opened in early October, and will feature guided and self-guided brewery tours starting next month - is expected to bring in at least that amount of foot and car traffic, and likely much more.

“It’s certainly a potential major landmark not only for Windsor, but for Sonoma County,” said Ben Stone, executive director for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. He contends the efforts of Russian River owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo in the county are comparable to what Robert and Margrit Mondavi did as pioneers of wine tourism in the Napa Valley.

“It’s really put us on the map,” Stone said of the craft brewer who has gained an international following.

Residual spillover

In less than a month, the new brewery already has spurred another beverage sector deal. And hopes are quite high for more business growth and public transit to Windsor, plus ways to get around town by bike and shuttle.

The most significant related announcement has been Napa vintner Jean-Charles Boisset deciding to make his first foray into beer by investing in Old Redwood Brewing Co., owned by Dominic Foppoli and Clay Fritz.

Boisset intends to build a high-end French bistro at the Windsor brewery site as part of the effort, said Foppoli, a Windsor council member running for reelection.

“He made me a very, very generous offer. I wasn’t looking to sell,” Foppoli said. “He said honestly it was because Russian River is coming. This is the residual spillover effect.”

Boisset declined to comment yet on the project, a spokeswoman said.

Hotels already have seen an uptick. The Desai family that operates both the Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express in Windsor has booked overnight guests specifically to go to the Russian River brewery even though it just opened Oct. 11 with little advance notice of the specific opening day.

“Down the road, we see big events there (Russian River) going on that will definitely give us a boost,” said Kevin Desai, adding that he is looking forward to the brewery’s Pliny the Younger release in February. “On the weekends, we see more guests coming to stay with us because of that.”

The initial customer traffic at Russian River in Windsor has been healthy, and appears to have exceeded expectations - despite no brewery tours yet and an outdoor patio without furniture given that fall has arrived. In addition, brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo has not started brewing new beers for his tap lineup as he ramps up the brewing system he imported from Germany to steadily expand production.

The brewpub/restaurant has averaged about 1,100 visitors daily since opening, said Natalie Cilurzo. The largest day so far has been Oct. 19 with 1,545 guests who that day filled up the 268-space parking lot.

“We have noticed that it has mostly been locals,” she said. “I don’t think beer tourism has really come our way yet.”

‘Utterly optimistic’

Just like wineries, beer tourism has been a burgeoning sector across the country within the last decade. Beer lovers have flocked to locales such as Asheville, North Carolina, which saw a spike when large independent breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico and New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colorado, opened to join countless other smaller craft brewers in the area.

And the state of New York saw a $450 million economic benefit from brewery tourism in 2013, according to a report prepared for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and New York State Brewers Association. The activity generated more than 3,000 jobs.

Locally, the main challenge is to get tourists coming for beers to stay longer in Windsor - hopefully overnight - rather than getting back on Highway 101 or flying out from nearby Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, which represents smaller, independent brewers.

“I’d expect you’d see an impact that over time will be significant for the region based on Russian River’s brand reputation and their ability to draw in outside visitors,” Watson said in an email.

Others near the Windsor brewery are mulling creative ways to lure the additional traffic coming into the area.

For example, vintners over at Grand Cru Custom Crush, just south of Russian River, are exploring how to take advantage of influx of visitors to the brewery. Grand Cru is a one-stop facility where small, family-owned wineries can do all the winemaking at the location. It also houses small suites where winemakers can host guests on an appointment-only basis. The wineries include Bucher Wines, Sangiacomo Family Wines and Laurel Glen Vineyard.

“In short, we are utterly optimistic,” said Erin Brooks, who is the proprietor of Ernest Vineyards with husband Todd Gottula. The couple are partners in Grand Cru, too.

Brooks said she is considering whether to place a sandwich board out on Conde Lane to alert visitors they can do a wine tasting while they are waiting for a table at Russian River. Grand Cru, she said, has the ability to accommodate walk-in visitors without an appointment.

“I believe this will be a great revenue booster for many neighbors,” Brooks said.

Looking for local beer

Such bullishness extends to nearby places within walking distance of the Russian River brewery, including those in the Windsor Beverage District, an area that encompasses mostly industrial and commercial buildings just north of Russian River. The area includes Artisan Alley, a booze-lover row featuring Titled Shed Ciderworks, Sonoma Brothers Distilling Co., Barley and Bine Beer Cafe and three wineries.

Just down the street is St. Florian’s Brewery, owned by Amy and Aron Levin, which opened up its doors in 2013 and has become one of the more established local businesses.

The Levins, who live in Windsor, have seen some new customers in their taproom that have come from Russian River.

“That’s what they are looking for. They (customers) want fresh, local brewery beer,” said Aron Levin, who also is a firefighter with the Windsor Fire District. “It’s going to highlight what Windsor has always been.”

Still, there are challenges for the community to capitalize on the full benefit of Russian River. Aron Levin said one priority should be Conde Lane getting more streetlights for those out at night and more pedestrian and bike-friendly lanes so people can get around sans automobiles. That would help in linking the town’s Beverage District to the Windsor Town Green, which has become a popular gathering place for music performances, movies and other festivities.

“You want them to visit the Town Green. How do they get to the Town Green? You need signage,” Levin said. “When you do go that way to downtown Windsor, right now there is no sidewalk, no bike lane and it’s not lit well.”

Indeed, ideas are being bandied about on trying to get tourists to visit more local sites close to Russian River. City leaders are considering a shuttle that would run between the brewery, the beverage district, local hotels and the Town Green to keep more dollars within Windsor. That program could be expanded to include Sonoma-?Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) that is slated to add a stop in Windsor by late 2021. SMART could help bring an even larger group of visitors to Windsor via public transit.

“We need to work out the mechanics,” said Mark Millan, a town council member who is running for re-election. “We will probably do a pilot (shuttle) first for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

The close proximity of all of the attractions in Windsor would lend itself to the ideal test case in Sonoma County for rental bicycle docking stations, as well as scooters, in addition to ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft that have become ubiquitous in the area, city leaders said. In a sense, portions of Windsor could mirror San Francisco, where many younger residents get around without using their own car.

Millan said Windsor officials already have talked to three different bicycle rental firms. The town has developed trails and bike paths that will be further enhanced when the bike trail near the SMART rail line eventually extends north to Windsor, and brings even more cycling visitors to the area.

Helping town finances

Windsor will have more money in its coffers thanks to Russian River that will allow the town to tackle such transportation initiatives. The town has about an $18 million annual budget. The lion’s share of that amount - about $15 million - comes from property, sales and hotel taxes. Town officials estimate the new brewery will provide a 3 to 5 percent boost in additional annual revenue from those ?three taxes, Millan said.

Developers are looking to build another hotel near the Town Green given all the activity. Even with more entrepreneurs whirling around Windsor, residents are wary about turning into a tourist town and they still want to preserve the neighborhood feel.

“We want to be careful we don’t go too far, too fast. A lot of our residents are concerned about us becoming like Healdsburg,” Millan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

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