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Stephen & Walker 

Ignore Yelp, and Trust this Winery

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In the first decade of this century, this column was, more often than not, a sassed-up brief following from an unannounced and incognito pop-in to this winery or that. So it was, and is, with snapshot reviews in print weeklies everywhere, from the Bohemian's "Small Bites" to The New Yorker's "Tables for Two." Oh, the sass, to snuggle those up in the same sentence.

In the interval, social networking sites like Yelp attracted a swarm of self-styled critics like flies on something that's delicious to flies. Perhaps these reviews are helpful, but it's required to sift through the testimonies of many, many high-maintenance prima donnas who can't go unacknowledged for 10 seconds post walking in the door without retaliating with a four paragraph diatribe about the rotten state of customer service, laced with personal barbs. Suffice it to say, I usually choose not to compete with that crowd.

If that doesn't even tangentially explain why I hadn't checked into Stephen & Walker Trust Winery Limited, until it was recommended to me just recently, there's the logo, for one. I'm assured that the antique bank-certificate-style labels have won gold medals themselves, but it says "bank" to me, and "trust" ain't in the same tag cloud anymore. And that sign, "Cult Wines." If that isn't a non sequitur, then it's a nonstarter, at the least, like a sign pointing to "secret beach." Fresh bait for the sort of tourists who amble in to a winetasting, trailed by their perfume. Sure enough, they join me shortly.

But as it turns out, this outfit is locally owned by husband and wife team Nancy Walker and Tony Stephen, career winemakers who have crawled up from the very trenches of the business, only for a snippy reviewer to take pot shots at their signage. Walker served at Fetzer, Clos du Bois, and was entrusted with the Cab program for Costco's Kirkland brand, before heading up Grove Street, where these wines are made.

The bar is comfortably sized for crowds, and there's a fun book of family relation Eric Curtis' staged photographs of "Fallen Superheroes" to flip through while tasting through a really standout, lean and lively 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a fine Pinot Noir triptych, a 2011 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($39) that's wanting only for cheesecake to drizzle over, and a sweetly balanced 2009 Muscat Canelli ($38).

Oh, but I had to wait, like, eight seconds before I was acknowledged, so . . . three and a half stars.

Stephen & Walker, 243 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. Daily, 11am–7pm. Tasting fee, $10. 707.431.8749.

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