Natalie Cilurzo will never forget the day everything changed for the Russian River Brewing Company. It was February 5, 2010—the first Friday in February—and as she and her husband Vinnie walked up to their cozy brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa they noticed a long line of people waiting to get in. Bewildered, they approached the crowd.
“Vinnie asked them, ‘What are you here for? What are you waiting for?’ Natalie recalls. “And they said, ‘For your beer.’”
“Vinnie said, ‘We don’t open for four hours.’
“And they said, ‘Don’t you know that Pliny the Younger has been rated the best beer in the world?’”
Unbeknownst to the Cilurzos, 100-point scores from BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com had transformed their limited-release triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, into a craft beer phenomenon. The lines have only grown since that day, and now thousands of people line up to sample Pliny the Younger during a two-week window each year, typically during February. The couples’ flagship double IPA, Pliny the Elder, has received similarly exalted reviews and draws visitors to the pub year-round.
“We got schooled pretty quickly at how to manage large crowds at our pub and we’ve been refining it every year,” Natalie says. “We’ve become a destination.“
The craft beer power couple opened a second pub in Windsor, in Sonoma County, where the couple has lived for more than 20 years, but lines largely remain. (Pro tip: Go on Valentine’s Day or during the Super Bowl, when many beer fans have other obligations.) We asked Natalie to take the California Questionnaire and she gladly obliged.
Where do you live? Santa Rosa.
Why there? Sonoma County has everything anyone could ask for! We moved here 20 years ago from Southern California and never looked back. It’s beautiful, has great weather, world-class wine and beer, dozens of local producers of dairy, meat, and produce, and the people are fun and interesting. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Who or what is your greatest California love? I love the fall in Northern California. The sun is lower in the sky casting a warm light on the vineyards and trees turning autumn colors. The coast is often warm and clear with sightings of gray whales migrating south for the winter. It’s the most beautiful time of year.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we all eat granola, smell like patchouli, and smoke pot! And if you are from California you must live in L.A.—I never understood that one.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? Californians are generally easygoing, casual, and friendly. We went to a beach wedding last summer in San Diego. The groom’s family was from New York and the bride’s family from California. The New Yorkers wore suits and cocktail dresses; the Californians wore shorts and sandals. A great time was had by all, but it was a very typical California wedding.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? I would start at the coast here in Sonoma County and head up to the Eastern Sierra by way of the Yosemite Valley. One of the most amazing things about California is the proximity of the Pacific Ocean to the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. And I would do this trip in middle-to-late spring when the mountain passes are open. It is the best time of year to catch all the beautiful wildflowers and flowing waterfalls. I have always appreciated the almost desolate beauty on the eastern side of the Sierras where the mountains and the high desert collide. It’s such a magical place and well worth the eight-hour drive.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Lightly battered, pan-fried abalone caught fresh that day off the coast of Mendocino, served by the campfire on a paper plate at Van Damme State Park with a tasty California craft brewed IPA. And we must start with a small wheel of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog cheese and a delicious sour beer.
Best California song? "California Dreamin’" by The Mamas and The Papas. This song truly captures a moment in history and a growing vibe in California leading up to the Summer of Love.
How would your California dream day unfold? When my husband and I have a rare day off, we like to start our day at Willie Bird’s restaurant with a late brunch. Then we head toward the coast. Our drive takes us through Sebastopol, then to the tiny historic hamlet of Freestone and a stop for a treat at Wild Flour Bakery.
Back on the road, we drive down Bohemian Highway and finally reach the charming town of Occidental. At the stop sign in town we hang a left onto a very narrow and windy road through beautiful redwoods and farm pastures. A hand-painted sign on a fence says “Ocean” with an arrow pointing west. When we crest the top of the hill, the grand Pacific Ocean floods our view from north to south. We make our way down the very steep and curvy road and finally hit Highway 1 and the ocean. We turn south toward Bodega Bay, made famous by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock with his movie The Birds. Our journey ends at Bodega Head, a huge bluff that juts out into the ocean and a perfect spot for whale watching.