Helen Johannesen at Helen’s Wines. Image Courtesy of Helen's Wines.

Resy SpotlightLos Angeles

Meet Helen Johannesen: the Wine Whisperer Thinking Big, Sourcing Small

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This is an edition of Best-Kept Secret: stories that illuminate the city’s best hidden gems and little-known industry intel, as told by local chefs, restaurateurs, and tastemakers. From off-menu hits and secret pairings to the inside-out of an influential operation, we’ve tapped the vets at the center of it all to divulge their best-kept secrets.

There’s a new Jon & Vinny’s in town. Just over a month into its tenure in Brentwood, the Italian-American cult-classic now graces westsiders with “LA Woman” pies, bowls of cacio e pepe, and, best of all, firsthand access to an array of interesting and delicious wines. If you’ve been to the Fairfax location, you’ll recall the glow that radiates from the back of the restaurant—a distinct combination of yellow, red, pink, and orange—and fills the room. It comes from Helen’s Wines: the tiny in-house wine shop owned and operated by Helen Johannesen, a partner in the restaurant and the beverage director for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s entire restaurant group, Joint Ventures.

For years, Helen’s Wines was a delightful, if undiscovered, extension of the Jon & Vinny’s empire (the outpost opened alongside Jon & Vinny’s in 2015). At the time, Helen was the company’s director of operations, so the fledgling shop operated literally and figuratively in the background. “I hadn’t fully grasped the identity of [the store’s concept], and I hadn’t really pushed the ball forward on it,” Helen admits. “Part of the reason was up until opening Jon & Vinny’s, I was our director of operations, for the whole company, and the beverage director. So it was hard to sort of separate myself from being so deeply entrenched in everyone else’s businesses to then focus on my own.” Needless to say, that’s no longer the case: in just a few short years, Helen’s Wines has blossomed into a living, breathing personality that’s inherently complementary to Jon & Vinny’s, but also stands on its own. With a full-fledged delivery program, gift box vertical, classes, a podcast, events, and an eleven-state expansion of the wine club on the horizon, Helen has stepped into the limelight as an entrepreneur first, sommelier second.

The glow of Helen’s Wines inside Jon & Vinny’s Fairfax location. Image Courtesy of Helen’s Wines.

A unique differentiator

Stepping inside Helen’s Wines, you’ll be taken by the intimacy of the experience, which is akin to dining at a treasured omakase counter, with an added dose of cool-kid vibes. The staff is informative, hospitable, and skilled in matching people with wine from a roster of over 500 labels. “Mighty in selection and curation,” the shops’ ultimate value is allowing guests to take the “warmth and experience” of Jon & Vinny’s home with them. “When I think about our two shops,” Helen begins, “I think about this layering of knowledge over time… it’s always been connected to food and connected to restaurant service.”

The recent boom in independent wine shops across the city only justifies the driving force of this Fairfax upstart-turned-staple, which not only provides access and exposure to spectacular wine, but the education around it, too. “Most people still default shop at the supermarket, which is kind of like the worst place you can buy wine,” Helen explains. Unlike grocery stores, which appeal to huge producers and rely on conventional categorization, value and taste abound in small shops. But wine experts are doing their part to “create more of a consumer habit, which is better for everyone.”

While the small space restricts the ability to offer regular tastings, guests are still encouraged to browse and sip, and all wines poured at Jon & Vinny’s are available for purchase in the shop. As for her philosophy, as much as she would love for it to be an amalgamation of every wine program she’s ever run, it’s not realistic to highlight “everything from everywhere.” Thus, the mission has evolved into a focus on farming practices as a guiding principle. “It’s so much about small production, wines made with care and thoughtfulness and balance. That’s really, really key.”

It caught on with east siders over the years, and now the west side is on board as well. Nevertheless, the clientele at each location reflects a difference in mentality. “I think the most interesting thing, so far, is that most people dining in the restaurant are drinking a certain way [whereas] people coming in to talk about wine for their homes are looking for very different wine.” Brentwood has been selling Sangiovese and traditional Italian red wine like wildfire, whereas Fairfax shoppers are purchasing bottles produced all across the globe.

Gem lettuce with Calabrian chili dressing, Parmesan, and breadcrumbs. Image Courtesy of Jon & Vinny’s.

Perfect pairings

For her part, Helen isn’t going to force the issue on varietals, believing wholeheartedly that drinkers should enjoy themselves, and sometimes that means staying true to what they’ve come to love. So, you’ll always find a variety of offerings: the food at Jon & Vinny’s is versatile, lending itself to many different flavors of wine. “You can have rosé throughout the entire meal. You can have heartier white wine, you can even have a pét-nat. [Assuming that’s something] you’re into, the food isn’t going to clash that much,” she states. That said, if you were to ask her what to drink alongside the menu, she’s going to suggest you opt for a lighter-bodied red, especially a juicier number like Cru Beaujolais. “It really cuddles up nicely with the little gem lettuces with the Calabrian chili dressing, which has a little bit of a kick to it. If you get the tuna conserva bruschetta,  followed by the red-sauce dominant spicy fusilli, Bolognese, and LA Woman, that Beaujolais is going to carry through.” Helen’s personal favorite? Gamay with pizza.

The “Little Nats” pie. Image Courtesy of Jon & Vinny’s.

Keeping things fresh

A little-known fact is that Joint Ventures has an off-site cellar where wine is aged. Not only is it a great asset for Helen and team to pull from when iterating on wine lists and stocking the shops, it also allows the restaurant group to create a foundation for—and give exposure to—up-and-coming somms who are earning their stripes within the organization. These days, many wine lists are dominated by current vintages or bottles that are only a few years old. The “immediacy” of wine is how Helen refers to the trend—“not a bad thing, necessarily. But I think you also need to keep in mind the tradition of what is so cool about wine: it’s a living thing, it changes over time.”

For Helen, the day-to-day effort is not dissimilar. The constant recalibration of inventory and offerings requires lots and lots of tasting. So, the wine veteran will organize private group tastings with the two women who serve as wine director anchored at each location. “I try and give [them] opportunities that I was given at a young age: to learn  how to run a successful program, how to be a good buyer, and how to create relationships.” The trio schedules up to eight appointments a week with wine reps, sharing tasting notes, and then discussing at length over email.

Given the concept’s focus on low-intervention wines, it’s important to look out for things like volatile acidity, which can taste like nail polish remover, or “mousiness” (a term that describes a taint caused by lactic bacteria). “I’m not willing to just carry something because it’s cool and then it has all of these flaws that are not appealing an hour into opening a bottle.” Experimenting with her approach and keeping an open mind are crucial to discovering new things. A function of that discovery phase is the tremendous benefit of carrying the good stuff first. Right now, wines from Australia and northern Austria/Czech Republic, plus light extraction wines from Spain are on her radar.

While Helen is involved in the wine programs at Trois Mec and Kismet, most of her attention as a sommelier is on the three restaurants where Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are chefs: Jon & Vinny’s, Son of a Gun, and Animal. At the latter, the most fine dining-leaning of the lot, the list is elevated along with the food. Much of the varied selection of red wine—from tannins to fruit levels, bold to light—is sourced from the off-site cellar. And at Son of Gun, 75% of the list is driven by what flavors are complementary to the seafood-heavy menu, plus a few full-bodied reds, so as not to alienate anyone. This somm’s motto is to make everyone feel comfortable.

Although Southern California is blessed with top-notch produce year-round, seasons still have everything to do with how food and wine play out at all three restaurants. “You can definitely tell what season you’re in when you read the menus,” says Helen. Especially if you hone in on the salads. The wine offerings change every month, shaped by what diners are drinking. “It’s really about seasonality— weather, temperature, and also state of mind.” In the winter at Jon & Vinny’s, you might find three different variations of a full-bodied or medium-plus-bodied red and two lighter reds being offered by the glass, whereas in the summertime, there could be two rosés and three really light red wines.

The warmth and experience of Jon & Vinny’s, to go. Image Courtesy of Helen’s Wines.

Access is everything

Taking a page out of this seasoned sommelier’s book, the best way to learn is to taste. So, next time you dine at a Joint Venture locale, lean into the wine list. Stop into a Helen’s Wines en route to a friend’s house to pick up a bottle, or stick around to try something new. (By popular demand, Brentwood now holds tastings every Saturday and Sunday from 2–4 pm.) Call for a case to be delivered to your house or a have your bar stocked for your next event. Sign up for wine club or a class. Grab a gift box—in advanced, this time—for whoever’s birthday is coming next. Even tune into Wine Face, the podcast, while driving down the 405. More to the point: keep your eyes peeled for Helen Johannesen, the woman giving you access to delicious wine every which way in Los Angeles. Better yet, make a Resy for weekend lunch at Son of a Gun, and you might even spot her in the flesh.

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