Educating Pittsburgh’s Food and Beverage Influencers
Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits and Dreadnought Wines in Lower Lawrenceville not only supply the region’s best restaurants with the finest special-order wine and spirits from around the world, but they also pour out professional knowledge and training to go with it.
Co-owner Deb Mortillaro has been teaching and advising some of the best in Pittsburgh’s food and beverage business for more than 20 years – restaurant owners, bartenders, caterers, servers, and now a new crop of Pittsburgh social media influencers.
And while she doesn’t have a Tik Tok account just yet, what she does have is credibility and more than 40 years of experience. Mortillaro graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979, worked as a private chef in Pittsburgh and is currently one of three women in North America to earn Level 3 advanced certifications in wine, spirits and sake from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in London, the international standard in wine and spirit knowledge. She’s also an advanced sake sommelier.
For the past seven years, Mortillaro has been Palate Partners’ primary instructor of Level 1 and 2 WSET courses in wine, spirits and sake. Since Palate Partners became a WSET Approved Program Provider (APP) in 2015, nearly 1,000 students have taken WSET courses, and the school maintains a near 100 percent pass rate, one of the highest in the country.
“We used to think there wasn’t a market for this type of education in Pittsburgh, but that has really changed over the past decade,” Mortillaro said. “Everyone from industry professionals to general enthusiasts can learn something from these courses.”
Cases in point: Young professionals who need a basic understanding of wine when meeting with clients in a restaurant. Bartenders who want to branch out from standard cocktails. Servers who want to make informed recommendations for diners. New restaurant owners developing standout wine lists. Even general enthusiasts who just want to choose the right wine for dinner.
“Our students come from a variety of backgrounds, interest-levels and professions,” Mortillaro said. “That’s why WSET courses are a great option. They include all the relevant information, but we keep it fun and approachable.”
Along with co-owner Mike Gonze, Mortillaro offers her WSET expertise and practical experience in food and drink through consulting services for weddings, private dinners, fundraisers and a host of other events. Her inbox constantly fills with requests to help select the perfect wine, spirit or sake for a particular function, and local restauranteurs often seek out her advice and recommendations.
Mary’s Vine, Umami, PA Market. The list grows longer, more delicious and more discerning each year due to Gonze and Mortillaro’s tireless efforts that continue elevating Pittsburgh’s food and beverage scene and allowing restaurateurs to develop and execute impeccable wine lists as well as provide knowledgeable service.
“Working with restaurants on their beverage programs brings me full circle to my first love of being a chef,” Mortillaro said. “To see Pittsburgh’s restaurants building and improving their beverage lists shows the increasing sophistication of consumers here.”
And that, Mortillaro said, makes for a perfect pairing.
“I strive to educate both ends of the stream – the providers and the consumers. The more consumers know, and the more restaurant owners know, the easier it is for both to understand each other,” she said.
Melissa Avery Granatire, a recent WSET Level 3 student, who owns her own catering business, said Mortillaro and Palate Partners inspired her passion for wine and exceeded her education expectations.
“Deb goes the extra mile to make sure you are prepared for your WSET exams and genuinely cares about students and their scholastic journey,” she said. I have never been so passionate and knowledgeable about wine than after my experience here.”
Matthew Tessmer, another WSET Level 3 student, agreed.
"As a wine enthusiast not in the wine trade, I have always had a love for wine, but had no clue where to start. I received the WSET Level 1 Wine course as a gift for my birthday and this course, and the amazing instructor, Deb, opened my eyes to the world of wine and piqued my interest in pursuing more formal wine studies. Since then, I have successfully completed WSET Level 2 and 3 Wine certifications through Palate Partners, with plans to take the Diploma Course for Wine in the future.”
Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits is Pittsburgh's premier provider of consumer wine and spirits education courses and Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) certification courses for food, beverage and hospitality industry professionals.