Vinnie Cilurzo’s Sonoma barrel room is meticulously organized. The Russian River Brewing Company brewmaster keeps the 6,000-square-foot space at exactly 58°F, and the neatly arranged wooden barrels are stacked five high.
“Many wineries remark that I have more barrels than them,” says Cilurzo.
He should know. In 1978, his family opened Cilurzo Winery in Temecula, California. He worked both there and at Korbel Champagne Cellar before he turned to beer. (Russian River Brewing was originally owned by Korbel. The Cilurzos bought the brewery in 2003.)
But in the late 1990s, Cilurzo combined his background in wine with his passion for beer to release Russian River’s first beers aged in wine barrels. One beer, Temptation, was aged in Chardonnay barrels, while Supplication was housed in Pinot Noir barrels.
With their fruity acidity balanced by smooth, woody notes, these beers became almost immediate collectors’ items. These beers are still brewed, aged and inspected by Cilurzo in his state-of-the-art facility.
About 250 miles south of Sonoma, master blender Jim Crooks manages the barrel room at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. Its founders, Andrew Firestone and David Walker, worked in wine when they started the brewery in a shed on a family vineyard in 1996. The brewery produces fruited sours and many experimental beers with wild yeast.
When Crooks first became interested in sour ales, he worked with winemaker Chuck Carlson of Curtis Winery. Carlson taught Crooks terms like “minerality,” and new fermentation dimensions to measure like “titratable acidity.” In addition to new vocabulary, Carlson also gave Crooks grapes. In 2012, Firestone Walker began to produce beers with a high percentage of fermentable sugar from grapes.
“It was like two people that were fluent in different languages got together and we figured out a way to talk to each other.”—Andrew Murray, Andrew Murray Vineyards
Crooks collaborates with winemaker Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards, on a series of beers made with up to 49% wine grapes, which is the legal limit to still qualify as “beer.” In 2017, its Feral Vinifera beer faced off against some of the world’s most respected sour, wild and traditional ales at the Brussels Beer Challenge. It won the Comac Trophy for best in show.
Murray says the blending sessions to create the beer were eye-opening. “It was like two people that were fluent in different languages got together and we figured out a way to talk to each other,” he says.
The exchange of knowledge went both ways. Murray’s label with winemaker Mckenna Giardine, E11even (pronounced Eleven), produces experimental, minimal-intervention wines. Giardine doesn’t inoculate E11even wines with commercial yeast, instead creating wines with funkier flavors and less predictable fermentation.
One such wine, E11even’s Pet Nat, uses a méthode ancestrale process that, like sour beer, involves bottling with live yeast. The first time that Giardine made his Pet Nat, Crooks came to the winery to help.
“I was like, “Alright, you’re finally speaking my language,’ ” says Crooks. The issues that they discussed are common for sour beers, like how to capture the right amount of carbon dioxide from bottling at young stages of fermentation, or cloudiness caused by refermentation in the bottle.
The Pet Nat produced a “perfect bead and pretty mousse,” says Murray, as well as some fruity esters that remind him of wheat beer. “If you just poured it, you would wonder if it’s one of Jim’s beers, but it’s not sour,” he says.
Back in Sonoma, another experimental winemaker pushes boundaries further by embracing Brettanomyces, the wild yeast known as “Brett” that can create undesirable flavors like smoke and mousy notes in wine. Winemakers so fear its effects that wineries have destroyed their entire collection of barrels to eradicate a Brett infection.
“I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only people in the world doing it,” says Mandy Heldt Donovan, founder/winemaker of Merisi Wines, of her 100% Brett-fermented wines.
She cites Russian River Brewing’s Cilurzo as an influence. She spent time in his Sonoma barrel room to learn how he coaxes positive fruity and floral flavors out of Brett for primary fermentation. She says that Cilurzo’s beers prove that Brett is a tool to open up all kinds of flavors in wine, and it’s “about time” that winemakers wrap their heads around it.
Donovan asked Cilurzo to taste her Brett-fermented Pinot Gris, A Winemaker’s Fright, before it debuted in 2018. She now releases a bottling every Halloween.
The Pinot Gris tastes of earthy cucumber skin and spicy ginger. These are notes not normally associated with the variety, but they’re found in sour beers like Logsdon Farmhouse Ale’s Seizoen Bretta, and Russian River’s own Sanctification.
“There’s a certain cohort who really like that…and then other people are like, ‘This is just weird,’ ” she says. “But those people aren’t drinking sour beer or kombucha either.”