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Dreadnought Wines: the big thinking behind the little wine store


You may come for the wines—which you can't find in any state store—but there's someone at Dreadnought Wines who is making the art of learning about wine and drinking wine a lot more fun. To wit, see what owner Deb Mortillaro writes in a recent e-newsletter: "A magnum is the perfect size bottle for two people…if one person isn't drinking."

That quote from Didier Dagueneau reflects Deb's arch humor which is evident in all Dreadnought mailings and in her many classes. Whether she's quoting John Maynard Keynes in stating "My only regret in life is that I didn't drink enough Champagne" or regaling with an amusing personal story (she's full of them), she is as entertaining as she is educational.

Dreadnought aims to be educational of course, as well as unique and passionate, and more, but above all else? They strive to be "unexpected."

 That's the philosophy with which co-owners Mike Gonze and Deb Mortillaro operate their one of a kind retail wine distributor and center of wine education, Dreadnought Wines.

Located on Penn Ave. near 20th Street in the heart of the Strip District, Dreadnought sells wines that you won't find at your state store, from small boutique wineries all over the world that are expertly selected by the dynamic and personable owners. "We don’t drink wines from the state store. Not because we don’t want to, but because we have to taste through our entire inventory every year, and there aren’t enough hours in the day!” says Deb.

Dreadnought was founded by Bob Gonze (Mike’s twin) and Shawn Beck in 1980. Their plans to provide Pittsburgh with specialty wines, public wine tastings, knowledgeable advice and a fundamentally different experience from shopping through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) system were immediately challenged by the State, prompting them to name Dreadnought after a class of English ships designed to weather turbulent seas. Mike bought the then-down-and-out business in 1986, and met Deb – a highly trained culinary expert working as a private chef – who joined him in 1995. Since, they’ve made Dreadnought’s offerings nearly as diverse as its inventory.

Small Business, Grand Scope
The array of wine classes feature topics ranging from the popular “Grilling with Wines” and “Wine and Food Pairings” to “Old World vs. New World” and in-depth explorations of Cabernets, Spanish Wines, grower (small batch) champagnes, and more.  Deb and Mike both educate class attendees with their personal brand of humor, and style:  Take this, from a recent marketing piece: “If sauteing with Deb  is like Greco-Roman wrestling, a delicate dance between ingredients dripping in oil, then grilling with Mike is like the WWE – same premise, just a lot more pyrotechnics and yelling."

The thriving Dreadnought Wine of the Month Club keeps it fresh for even the most traveled of palates, with rotating features accompanied by vivid descriptions with a down-to-earth spin: “Nerosso [meaning “BlackRed” in Italian] is intense at the nose, full in the body, massive in the character. Perfect for your warm weather barbecue!” Each delivery features a bottle of red and one of white, with tantalizing and detailed descriptions of each to prep your tasting, along with suggestions for pairing food.

Dreadnought is also known for private events and regularly partners with the Omni William Penn Hotel to host decadent multi-course meals perfectly paired with high-end wines and champagnes, for $75-100 a person.  In addition, they partner with everyone from the Warhol Museum to Marty's Market to hold fun and accessible educational wine events, often paired with cheeses or chocolates.

Something for Everyone?A boutique bottle from Dreadnought doesn’t have to break the bank.  Inventory ranges from $9 to $125, with the majority of selections in the $15-$30 range.  There’s just one catch. Thanks to red tape from the PLCB, there is a $50 minimum purchase and wine orders must be picked up (or delivered, for a fee) two days after purchasing, to allow time for the necessary paperwork. Worth it? Few are complaining.

It’s such a pleasure to chat with Deb and Mike and browse their unique collection of wine-related accessories (including one of the biggest selections of the famous Riedel Crystal glassware anywhere) that customers welcome the excuse to return so soon.

One way to sample Dreadnought is at their 1st and 3rd Friday Casual Wine Classes, where from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m., you can browse the shop while discovering three white and three red selections, nosh on cheese and bread, and mingle with a mix of people from connoisseurs to first-timers – all for just $12 a person.  

While their other classes require registration, here you can simply show up. They attract about 40 to 80 people depending on the time of year, and on this particular evening, sippers had the opportunity to chat with Melina Tassou, the Greek winemaker of Kikones, Greece’s first commercial winery, three of whose wines we were tasting that evening. Like this one: "A crisp French white, the MonMousseau Touraine Sauvignon Blance 2011: "boasting “slightly musky aromas of flower and citrus fruit, it’s young and fresh but keeps its fat and round character to the taste with a long-lasting note.”  Cheers to that.

Come One, Come All
With extensive international backgrounds in wine and food, an exclusive inventory, and a dedicated wine-enthusiast following, you might expect a pretentious air about the place – but the opposite is true.

“We really are passionate about the teaching and getting people to understand the subject matter so they aren’t intimidated by it,” says Deb. “ ‘Yum’ doesn’t help me know what you like about a wine… We help people learn to focus on the flavors and tastes of the wine and the descriptors… not to be a wine snob, but to make a better purchasing decisions. It’s like buying a car, the more you know about the car and what you want in a car, the more likely you are to get what you want and at a good price.”  

So how do you find out if you like citrus notes or wines aged in new oak? “Take any class where the instructor asks you to describe the wine or clearly describes the flavors so you can start to recognize and describe them,” advises Deb. “For basic knowledge you can read about wine, but you’ve got to taste and taste a lot… with the intent to learn and understand what you’re tasting.”  She recommends their three-part “Wine 101” and “New World vs. Old World” as foundational classes for newbies.

The Personal Is Regional
Finding out what you individually love, can end up collectively helping us all.  “We love Pittsburgh. Over the years the market here has become more sophisticated, the restaurants, the customers, it’s a full circle,” says Deb. “As people learn more about wine, they will go into restaurants and ask for better wines… and eventually they start finding better quality house wines.” They are currently developing classes tailored for wait staff who can then use their education to help customers make better selections.

Mike encourages people to browse restaurant wine lists to find unusual varietals and blends. “Try to find something out about it… dig deeper. Instead of asking if it’s good, try to define good by the flavor. Good is personal.”

And so is the process of buying wine at Dreadnought.  Deb and Mike personally taste and select the wines they carry and can tell you the full story of the people who made the wine and where.  And while their expertise is be hard to beat, they both say that there is always more to learn. “Learning new things and sharing that knowledge with people is what motivates us,” says Deb.

For holiday sipping, here are Deb's suggestions, with her comments:
The Little Lion Winery series:
Little Lion Rule Cabernet 23.79
Little Lion Volunteer Cabernet 33.99
Bandwagon Pinot Noir 19.29 (this is the first time a winery has blended California and Oregon grapes together)
The Scott Harvey series:
 Scott Harvey Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera each $21.29
 Eberle VS Cabernet 23.79
For the Whites:
Chehelem Chemistry, a blend of 4 grapes (Oregon) 17.99
Emilio Blanc 13.49
Berger Gruner Veltner 17.99
For Champagnes: (these are all small producers of grower champagne. Superior quality)
Aubry Brut (French) 48.79
Pierre Gimonnet Cuvee Gastronome Brut (French) 66.79
Vilmar & Cie Cellier D”Or (French) 82.29
Other Bubbles:
Carra Pulcinella Prosecco (Italy) 14.79
Pittsburgh Bubbles N At (California) 15.99
Cheers, and happy holidays to all!

Abby Sadowsky Bolton is a writer, community advocate, marketing communicator, and full-time Consultant for the innovative TiER1 Performance Solutions (www.TiER1performance.com). She lives in Regent Square with her husband and basset hound.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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