Dreadnought Wines Celebrates 42 Years
What started as a small family business 42 years ago, has evolved into one of Pittsburgh’s most respected distributors of specialty wine and spirits, education and events for consumers.
Dreadnought Imports, Ltd., doing business as Dreadnought Wines in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, remains true to the initial vision developed by Bob Gonze and Shawn Beck in 1980; To provide quality wine and spirits, education and unique accessories to consumers.
“The long-term thinking was that Pennsylvania would privatize liquor sales and that specialty retail shops would open up, and we could even franchise Dreadnought,” said current President Mike Gonze, who joined the business in 1983. “The concept of going to a place where you could open a bottle of wine and talk with someone who knew about the wine was very new.”
Bob Gonze arrived in Pittsburgh in 1979 having invested in the now defunct Meyer China Company of Beaver Falls, Pa. As a side project, he opened a “wine retail shop” at 1627 Penn Avenue on April 1, 1980, which he named Dreadnought after the British-built battleships of the early 20th Century. The idea was to operate a luxury retail store that offered wine, classes and accessories for sale, and as he liked to say, “a more civilized way to buy wine.”
At the time, outside of bars and restaurants, there were only two ways established by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to buy wine retail in Pennsylvania – directly from a state store, or through a distributor using a Special Liquor Order. With the exception of a few licensed shops, wineries and grocery stores, that’s still the case today.
“People joke that Dreadnought was appropriately named because of all the turbulent waters we’ve had to navigate over the years,” said Mike’s long-time business partner Deb Mortillaro, whom he met in 1990 while she was working as a private chef seeking out high-end wines for her employer.
Today, Dreadnought still functions as a licensed distributor that procures specialty wine and spirits from importers throughout the world and then sells them to the public, restaurants and other businesses through the PLCB’s Special Order program.
Under the Special Order program, licensed distributors can sell wines and spirits not offered by the PLCB to other licensees such as restaurants and retailers, as well as to individuals. But those orders must physically go to a PLCB store or service center to be scanned and then be picked up. The PLCB charges a handling fee as well as taxes on each transaction.
“The Special Order process has been streamlined through the Internet, email and the use of barcodes, but it is largely the same as it was 40 years ago,” said Mortillaro, who officially joined Dreadnought in 1992 and helped found sister company Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits in 1995. Bob officially sold the company to Mike in 1986.
Over the years, there were mountains of rules and paperwork to navigate just to be able to sell corkscrews and glasses alongside bottles of wine, and Dreadnought’s relationship with the PLCB was not always easy sipping. But Gonze stayed the course, as he says, “always working to solve problems.”
For example, Dreadnought began accepting credit card payments for wine, which was not allowed by the PLCB. They went to court to continue offering customers the convenience. Dreadnought was also the first distributor in the state to offer an online wine club, which they had to press legally to continue.
“There have always been frustrations,” Mortillaro said. “I think we invented the pivot long before the pandemic happened.”
Over the years, Dreadnought moved a few times in the Strip District, but ultimately found its current home on Liberty Avenue in Lawrenceville - a building that has plenty of space for retail, classrooms and a warehouse, which allowed the original vision to continue to expand.
Dreadnought and its sister companies, Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits and Soiree Partners (a transport for hire company established to transport alcohol in PA), continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic that included being closed for three-and-a-half months in 2020, laying off the staff, and delaying its 40th birthday celebration.
Deb and Mike, and a small staff of eight, continue to fill special orders, offer classes and events, and wine accessories for sale. They’ve also found new and expanded audiences for classes and events around wine, spirits and sake - everyone from service industry professionals to college students to hobbyists who want to learn more.
“People are really interested to learn and try new things, and it’s exciting for us to help them on their journey,” said Mortillaro, who recently became only the third woman in North America to earn prestigious Level 3 Awards from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Wine, Spirits and Sake.
As Mike and Deb continue to navigate choppy waters in their yellow brick “battleship” on Liberty Avenue, both said they are happy to continue heading into the wind, provided of course there’s wine along the way.
“I never thought we’d still be around in this fashion, essentially doing the same things we set out to do 42 years ago,” Mike said. “I think I’m most proud of the fact that we have kept the company alive when most everyone told us it wouldn’t work.