Kat Hawkins, a W&S Best New Sommelier of 2019, left her hometown of Detroit in the fall of 2018 to take over the wine list at Shaw’s Crab House. It’s a Chicago institution, coming on 35 years, with 550 seats and a 300-bottle wine list. Hawkins has been moving that list away from the New World reds that once played a significant role, toward sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, with other whites peppered in. Still, she was surprised that her biggest success with a new wine this year was a Napa Valley cabernet…at a seafood restaurant.

How is it that the Elizabeth Spencer 2015 Napa Valley cabernet did so well?
People want cabernet no matter whether you’re in a fish house or not. So, I tried to pick the most appropriate wine stylistically, and it took off. It’s classic, balanced, not a ton of big, hot jammy fruit, not overly alcoholic or overly oaked. And I priced it pretty aggressively to introduce it to my team. In a tourist-heavy area like Chicago’s River North, people are looking for something between $80 and $120, and that fell right in between. It’s easy to say, easy to talk about. That contributed to its success.

Sauvignon Blanc rules on your list, with Jolivet Sancerre and Cloudy Bay by the bottle, and Marlborough and Sancerre represented by the glass as well.
I inherited a lot of that success with sauvignon blanc. And then I leaned into it. The bottle selections, I tried to pick things that were good price to quality and stylistically different enough. Jolivet is crisp lemon as opposed to that big New Zealand grapefruit, grassy bomb. There are some French wine drinkers who won’t go near New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Still, if your parents drag you out to dinner in the suburbs and you have to drink something, I can have a beer or a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Why do you think folks favor by-the-glass wines—which make up 45 percent of your sales by dollar volume?
It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out, why everyone just hammers wine by the glass here. I’ve seen a little shift in bottle sales as we’ve started to educate this team and carry products that are a little more fine-wine, fine-restaurant driven. We had a lot of commercially successful wines here when I started and I’ve tried to steer away from that. My staff is now a lot more confident in selling bottles. We do a non-mandatory wine class every other Wednesday—I open stuff up, and if I go on a tangent talking about something, I’ll run to the cabinet and grab something to open. We have a more formal training with suppliers every week. Now they ask, “Hey, what can I take home from here today.” We have a retail license, so they can buy it, take it home and enjoy it. They come back and will tell a guest, “Oh, I took this bottle home, let me tell you about it.”

Meanwhile, I’ve shrunk the by-the-glass program, just to make it a little easier and more friendly. With forty wines by the glass, you run into the paradox of choice: People have too many choices and get overwhelmed, so they might pick the cheapest, or the most expensive. Honing it down, I can steer them toward other things.

You have three cabernets in among your top-selling wines by the bottle and only one pinot noir—the Van Duzer 2015.
When I ran the numbers, I thought, for sure, there would be more pinot noir, considering how many I have. Overall, I sell more pinot noir than cabernet as a category. But as far as individual SKUs, there’s brand loyalty with cabernet, and if you get businessmen in, they say, ‘I must have this’—“I must have Jordan,” or “I must have Caymus.” People don’t buy the same Burgundy or the same Willamette. I can dig into things when people say, “I’m super excited about pinot, what’s your favorite?” For Burgundy, it’s often about price point: “I know I want French pinot noir, but I only have this much to spend.” Rarely do I have someone say, “I must have Faiveley,” or ”I must have Jadot.” I want to meet that person! Or the person who says, “I only drink Dujac.” Yeah, me too, and I hope you’re paying.