The biggest interview of my life, and I nearly blew it.
I’m still anonymous enough in this industry that if Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of one of the most famous craft breweries on the planet, grants me time for an interview, well, that’s like interviewing the President for your podcast.
Hyperbole? Maybe a little. But still, people from around the world line up for hours for a chance to drink a certain brew only available for a couple of weeks every February.
And I got to talk to one of the people that makes it possible.
So it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I walked through the door at the pub in downtown Santa Rosa and mentioned I was there to interview Natalie for my blog.
Eventually I spoke to the pub manager, who explained that Natalie was at their production brewery.
A couple of miles away.
Where her office is.
Where we had arranged to conduct the interview.
Like an idiot, I assumed her office was at the pub. And of course, since I took the train to Santa Rosa, I didn’t have a car.
The manager called her and, after some back-and-forth, she agreed to come to the pub. But, she had a conference call at Noon that she couldn’t miss.
By the time she got there, it was 11:40. We had 20 minutes.
I’ve heard it said that, despite all the success and accolades they’ve received over the years, Natalie and her husband Vinnie are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, in or out of the brewing industry.
Not only did I get that impression the first time I’d met her, but once she got to the pub, SHE was the one who apologized.
Are you kidding?
Anyway, once we got the hurried pleasantries out of the way, we had a great conversation. We discussed the pub’s critical role in helping the community cope with the Wine Country fires, the status of the new Windsor facility, and how her background in the wine industry helped her handle the challenges of running a brewery.
We began by talking about Sonoma Pride, the enormously successful fundraiser for victims of the fires.
The Beerverse: You must be really gratified at how well Sonoma Pride fundraising’s been going.
Natalie Cilurzo: I’m very moved by the tremendous response from the beer community. People were reaching out to US, they weren’t responding to an inquiry or a solicitation from us to help out. We had friends from all over the world reaching out, asking “What can we do, how can we help?”
BV: So you didn’t even put out a call, they just came to you.
NC: We didn’t. When we decided to mobilize our efforts and repurpose our Sonoma Pride brand, we started with local breweries. Bear Republic was the first we spoke with and they came on board. We ended up with about 60 breweries making Sonoma Pride beer, which also required signing a trademark license agreement.
BV: I was wondering how that process worked.
NC: It’s not a collaboration, we’re just licensing a brand out to a bunch of breweries. We had to stop it about 60 breweries. It was just too much. All we were doing was coordinating breweries and it became too burdensome. We weren’t able to focus our efforts on trying to raise money, which was the whole purpose.
Many of our friends, like Allagash and New Belgium, said, “we know what you need is money.” So they wrote us some very sizable checks. We just got an email from Alvarado Street who wrote us a sizable check.
It’s been wonderful, and very humbling.
BV: One of your fundraisers was to raffle line-cutting privileges for Pliny the Younger. How did the winners react?
NC: Nobody really flipped out, people just really wanted to help. This has been a very somber experience, it hasn’t been a party, at all. People were like, “I just really wanted to contribute to the cause. I’m excited, but I would have come anyway even if I couldn’t cut in line.”
BV: How’s it been since the first few days? I know you were one of the first businesses to open as a space for people to gather. It must have been nice to have this available for locals who were affected.
NC: If you think about it, most people were without power and water and gas, or were evacuated. We were the only place people could come to get a hot meal, a cold beer, see the television, have access to wifi.
BV: Did you lose power at all here?
NC: We didn’t lose power at all, we were really lucky. We’re on the Memorial Hospital grid, and that was the only Santa Rosa hospital that wasn’t evacuated. So we rarely lose power here, thankfully.
Most of our employees were evacuated, or inconvenienced by not having power, but they came to work anyway. Everybody rallied. Everyone here was part of the community for the couple of weeks that the fires were burning.
Over time, people from out of the area started coming back. We’re still not back to 100%, but there’s also no place around here [for tourists] to stay right now, as the hotels are filled with evacuees. FEMA and other agencies are here helping out, so there’s not a lot of vacancy right now.
BV: Has the mood of the locals lifted a bit with time?
NC: Absolutely. Everybody is in recovery mode, rebuilding mode, and looking to the future mode. I think the trauma is starting to wear off and people are wanting to feel normal. And that’s what we provided, a sense of normalcy.
We had a lot of people who lost their homes, or they were here when they found out they lost their homes. For many who lost their homes, this was the first place they came. Many didn’t know for a long time.
People said they came here because this is their other home, this is where they feel normal. They just wanted to forget about things for a little while.
Our staff has been really amazing. They’re primarily young, and relatively inexperienced with traumatic, life-changing events, and they had to be therapists. They had to be the shoulders to cry on, and sit down and listen to people’s stories. It was hard, we would all leave work exhausted.
BV: I bet! But at least you were here. In spite of everything, it must be gratifying to provide that for people.
NC: Oh yeah, we had to. We were only closed one day, because no one could get here because the freeways were on fire and everyone’s houses were burning down. I wouldn’t have even considered opening, I wouldn’t have had any employees to open with!
Our staff has been really amazing. They’re primarily young, and relatively inexperienced with traumatic, life-changing events, and they had to be therapists. They had to be the shoulders to cry on, and sit down and listen to people’s stories.
BV: Speaking of opening, how’s the new facility in Windsor coming?
NC: Windsor’s coming along great! Our brewhouse arrived [recently] on the ship. I went down to Marin Headlands and got some pictures of the ship going under the Golden Gate, which was amazing. It was a beautiful day. You can track ships these days, it’s kind of cool.
Walls are starting to go up, things are happening.
BV: Did the fires affect the construction schedule?
NC: Yes. We were down for a few days since the air quality was so bad. On the morning of the fires you could see northern Santa Rosa on fire. The fires were burning in the hills right across the freeway from the brewery, so you could actually see flames. It was weird, you could see a glow in the sky, but it wasn’t the sun. Then you could see smoke, flames, then the sun actually came up, and then it got really dark because of all the ash in the air.
We did a big concrete pour that first Saturday after the fires, while the fires were still going. That was the morning Rincon Valley was evacuated. But we didn’t get behind. We’re all caught up [on construction] and everything’s fine.
On the morning of the fires you could see northern Santa Rosa on fire. The fires were burning in the hills right across the freeway from the brewery [construction site], so you could actually see flames. It was weird, you could see a glow in the sky, but it wasn’t the sun.
BV: So it’ll be ready to help out for the 2019 Pliny the Younger release?
NC: Yeah, we’ll be doing Pliny the Younger at both locations. We still have some time to figure out exactly what that’s going to look like. For now the vision is it’ll be pretty much the same at both breweries.
Obviously we would not recommend going to both breweries on one day, because we wouldn’t serve you. We don’t care who you are, we can tell when you’ve had three Youngers! But it would be fun if you wanted to go to one brewery one day and one brewery the next day, and have a completely different experience.
The new brewery is going to have a lot more to offer — guided tours, self-guided tours, a growler-filling room. We have a lot of customers who just want to get in and get out. They’re just passing through, they’re locals, they know what the beer tastes like, it’s the Holidays, the Super Bowl, etc, etc. They want to fill their growlers with Pliny or Blind Pig or whatever, and get on out of here.
And we’ll have a real gift shop that’s bigger than that little room [here in the pub].
BV: When do you expect the new brewery to be online?
NC: We expect to start brewing in the summer, around July/August, and plan to open to the public probably September/October-ish.
BV: Between your work here and being President of the Board of Directors of the California Craft Brewers Association, you wear a lot of different hats. I would ask what a typical day is like for you, but I imagine no two are the same.
NC: I don’t think so. I think a typical day is one that is very fluid, and I actually thrive on that.
As a business owner, you never really shut down. You don’t get the luxury of being able to check out, even if you’re on vacation. The phone’s going to ring in the middle of the night, or you’re going to sleep thinking about something, or you wake up at 3am thinking about something, or blah, blah, blah.
I wake up in the morning, feed the cats, make my coffee, and sit down and starting checking emails. It’s not a normal, Monday-Friday, 8-5 kind of job.
BV: I’m amazed at anyone who can be an entrepreneur. I don’t know how you do it.
NC: It requires a lot of passion, and you have to be enthusiastic about what you’re doing. If you don’t like what you’re doing, it’s not going to work out. You have to be flexible, you have to roll with the punches, get a thick skin. You have to develop a lot of things that don’t always come naturally to people.
As a business owner, you never really shut down. You don’t get the luxury of being able to check out, even if you’re on vacation. The phone’s going to ring in the middle of the night, or you’re going to sleep thinking about something, or you wake up at 3am thinking about something…
BV: I imagine a natural enthusiasm will carry you a long way.
NC: It helps if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. If you keep your eye on the goal, or are just constantly able to move forward, the speed bumps you hit in the road just end up being only speed bumps, regardless of their size. You’re always looking forward to the future. You always have things to look forward to.
BV: You started working in the wine industry at 16. In what capacity?
NC: I worked at a little winery called Mengihni Winery in San Diego County. I’m still friends with the owners. My best friend and I would go in on the weekends and hand-label and hand-foil their wine bottles.
BV: How did your wine career evolve before you got into beer?
NC: I was in the wine industry for 19 years. I put myself through college, got a Bachelor’s Degree from Sonoma State. I ended up being in more of a sales/administration type role, then got into sales. I got to work with wholesalers and be in education, and I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.
BV: I’m sure a lot of those skills translated well into running this company.
NC: A lot of those skills did, working with wholesalers and learning the ins and outs of that world and translating it into the role that I’m in now. I got a lot of great advice [from the] relationships I made along the way, and a lot of [Russian River Brewing] investors came out of that job, too!
And with that, she said a quick goodbye, thanked me for coming, and rushed off to her conference call.
By the way, as we were talking she showed me those photos of the ship carrying the new Windsor brewhouse passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. Expect to see those gracing the walls of the new pub once it opens.
After a very nice lunch, I spotted her as I was leaving and thanked her again for making the trip over and making time for me.
And, once again, SHE apologized for the location mix-up.