This Texas Bistro Boasts One Of The Best Wine Lists In The World

Mary Stanley was utterly surprised when she found that had been listed among the best wine lists in the world. The bistro she owns in the small Central Texas town of Brownwood earned the award from World of Fine Wine, a first-time award from a newly created category.

Her carefully curated list attracted the judges’ attention for its fantastic quality at a superb value, offering customers the chance to enjoy an excellent bottle for an average of $60 or less, with many coming in under $100. At any given time, the cellar holds 80 reds, 50 whites, and seasonal sparkling and rosés.

“They emailed an invitation to go to the awards, but there was no way I could go,” says Stanley. “At that time, I had no extra money and was barely holding this place together. Staffing, as you know, is a nightmare everywhere, and I did not have a dress or anything I could wear to one of those high glam British wine award galas. So, I blew it off.”

Three days before the ceremony they emailed to say that they had created a new category for value wines, and that she was a finalist. “They asked if I would come. I told them I had no ticket, and no dress, and that things were very shaky here. So, the head of received the award for me. I feel like this was a cosmic accident. Kind of crazy, but we’ve been internationally recognized at a level with some restaurants I can't even afford to walk into.”

Brown County, where The Turtle is located, was dry until 2008. Mary and her husband David, an architect, bought part of a block in downtown Brownwood which, at the time, was all but dead. They carefully restored the space and opened The Turtle Restaurant in 2004 as a quaint, farm-to-table spot that seemed completely out of place.

She relied on tourists passing through on the way to Santa Fe or to Lubbock, a large university town, as customers. Through word of mouth, people started stopping for dinner. Eventually, they opened the adjacent space to showcase Mary’s award-winning gelati, which she learned to craft in Italy. Because of her growing interest in wine, the Gelateria morphed into the Enoteca in 2009.

Here, they showcased organic, biodynamic, and local wines, and invested in a nitrogen dispenser to offer tastings and higher-end options by the glass. After her list received an award of distinction from Wine Enthusiast Magazine in 2010, Mary began entering her quirky wine list in competitions, but had taken a submission hiatus due to pandemic complications to focus her time and resources on keeping The Turtle open. It’s no wonder that the World of Fine Wine award caught her by surprise.

“It totally blew me away to see , he’s a heavy hitter in the wine world in Asia and was a judge on the panel,” says Mary. When I saw his posting is when the reality of winning hit me. He listed wines he thought were ‘ninja killer’ and ‘ninja crazy’ from our list. I'd never seen a wine writer use a rating system like his! It was nice to see it was ok to not be a stuffy wine snob.”

Shunning wine fads and popular labels, Mary prefers to focus on lesser-known grape varietals and regions, which is not always easy as distributors are reluctant to travel to her remote location. “Sometimes my sales rep makes fun of me,” she says. “He thinks I’m being too esoteric.” Among the favorites recently tasted were wines from the Ligurian coast, including the Bianchetta Genovese U Pastine Portofino Bianco from .

“The term U Pastine is from the local dialect indicating a very special product, appropriate for this rare white grape found only in Liguria,” says Mary. “Enoteca Bisson has saved several parcels from extinction, and from which they create a truly unique white wine that is delicate, lively and satisfying, filled with vibrant minerality. [Bisson winemaker] Pierluigi Lugano also makes a dry, brilliantly red rosato from the rare indigenous variety Ciliegiolo.”

Although not a sommelier, Mary relies on her own taste to choose the wines for her rotating list. “I like grapes grown on volcanic soils,” she says. “I also have a personal fondness for Rioja, and carry . Are they rare? It depends on how far back you examine history and how you think about it.”

Not well known in the USA today, millions of liters of Canary Islands wine shipped to London in the 15th century, and they figured in three of William Shakespeare’s plays in the 16th century. George Washington drank it for its “beneficial” properties, and President Thomas Jefferson ordered it from Tenerife for his own personal consumption. “I think these are some of the coolest wines on our list,” says Mary. “They are unique and have always been phylloxera free.”

“I think this appealed to the judges, too,” she continues. “One of the judges, Francis Percival, lead a panel discussion at Tex-Som 22 titled Wine as Fashion. I had an inkling that he was talking about my list when he got very agitated talking about all the overlooked great wines for places like the Canary Islands, Sardinia, Bulgaria, Mexico, etc. as opposed to hot names, California Cabs, and celebrity brands. Then I thought, nah he doesn't even know me.” Turns out he probably did.

I list by grape because I want my customers to see that there are lots of different types, and then maybe learn how the region or terroir affects the taste and price by trying one version and then another. We have 10 white and 10 red on our dispenser to pour by the glass, and I list tasting notes for the section.

“But here is where I feel like an imposter because I am self-conscious about my tasting vocabulary. Can anyone in America know what a gooseberry smells or taste like? When I go to markets in Italy or Spain all the fruits and vegetables have marvelous aromas. You don't even have to hold them to your nose, they just waft off the vendor shelves. We don’t get that in our grocery stores.”