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Helen herself. All photos courtesy of Helen’s Wine

InterviewsLos Angeles

It’s Jon & Vinny’s World, But Helen Johannesen Keeps Our Glasses Full In It

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Helen’s Wines, the bottle-shop-within-a-restaurant, has been a hallmark of the Jon & Vinny’s experience since the beginning. When the restaurateurs and chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened their Italian-American smash hit on Fairfax Avenue in 2015, they had Helen Johannesen handling the wine aspects from the start. For the past seven-plus years, her role has been to oversee wine shops the inside each new Jon & Vinny’s location — now four in total, with two more on the way — in addition to wine programs at each restaurant, and to grow Helen’s Wine as a brand. 

Helen’s Wines sells wine to diners at tables, to retail customers, and online to imbibers across the country. They also curate gift boxes and of course have a wine club; Johannesen hosts a podcast. The latest evolution of Helen’s Wine adds to hat: It’s a wine bar — that’s also a shop — in the newest Jon & Vinny’s location in Beverly Hills. In light of this latest development, we caught up with Johannesen to ask about what comes next.

Resy: What makes the Beverly Hills location of Helen’s Wines distinct from the others?

Helen Johannesen: The intent, energy, and vibe are obviously the same. It’s the same approach to wine — educational and accessible — but physically, it’s totally different. It’s a wine bar instead of an enclosed shop. I like to talk about it like an inside-out wine shop because you can still buy retail off the shelves, but it takes the idea of wine service and the interaction with the somms to another level.

How do you think having a wine bar as opposed to a shop will change how customers interact with Helen’s?

HJ: It’s going to foster more community-building around wine. The other big difference is that there’s an espresso machine at the wine bar. The inspiration for that is those infamous standing bars in Italy. [Italian drinking culture] is a true driving force for many of the wine bar’s factors, including the reason there are no chairs.

Is the square footage of Helen’s in Beverly Hills bigger than in other Jon & Vinny’s locations?

HJ: No, this is actually on the smaller size. It’s kind of the same size as Fairfax, but it’s a different shape. It’s more of a square, whereas a Fairfax is like a rectangle. And you can see the entire room from pretty much anywhere you stand in the restaurant, including the wine bar. I think for so long when people thought of Jon & Vinny’s, they thought of Helen’s as this separate entity within that space. Beverly Hills really represents in a material way the way that Jon and Vinny and I have thought about it since day one, which is that they’re the same. People tend to isolate the different brands, so this space is really a marriage of the two.

The new Helen’s Wine in Beverly Hills
The new Helen’s Wine in Beverly Hills

What will be available to eat and drink, and what are you most excited to offer?

HJ: We have a bottle list of about 375 different wines, ranging from Champagne to pet-nat, orange wine, rosé, and then, of course, red and white wine. We have wines from California, Chile, France, Italy, Austria. It’s not as big of a selection as our other stores, but we really tried to cultivate and curate a nice well-rounded representation of what we do from the high to the low. It’s never been, “We’re going to Beverly Hills and everything is just going to be expensive.”

We are also doing aperitivo cocktails, but we only have a beer and wine license so we can’t have certain spirits. There’s going to be a play on an Aperol spritz made with Cappelletti, and we’re going to use Cocchi extra dry and blanco vermouth to make this limonata with vermouth in it. It’s so good. We’re doing a version of an espresso martini. And then we’re already doing shakeratos — a very classic drink made by shaking espresso so it foams up with a little bit of sugar — poured into a wine glass, and mochas.

What else is new to this location?

HJ: The other different thing we’re doing is daily apéro from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. I don’t love this word, but I don’t know how else to say it: it’s modeled around the idea of tapas. You order a drink, you get a snack, you order your second drink, you get a second snack. And the only new item is these craveable croutons that Vinny created for us. They’re just crunchy and snacky and are our answer to bar peanuts and pretzels or whatever people might put out. It’s Gjusta ciabatta bread that’s cut into cubes with a garlic-roasted salty seasoning.

Why Beverly Hills for this concept? Does it cater specifically to that neighborhood? 

HJ: There are two primary reasons. One was the space. When we looked at how a wine shop would fit into the floor plan, it felt like it didn’t do the space justice. Beverly Hills is one of the areas in L.A. that has the most foot traffic, with the most “New York” vibe, because of all the people walking around. So I felt like it would be a great location to try something else. I think there’s an aspect in Beverly Hills that guests don’t want to be tucked in a corner, they want to be at the wine bar that’s right in the front. 

I also felt that there’s more of an after-work culture here, a “hey, we’re getting off at five. Let’s meet at Helen’s for a drink.” It’s hard to get people to do that inside a shop in the back of a restaurant. The wine bar [creates room] for people who don’t have a reservation, and maybe don’t even want a full meal. I think this neighborhood is a great area to beta-test this idea of how Helen’s could work inside of Jon & Vinny’s, or perhaps one day without a Jon & Vinny’s.

Is this expansion upon Helen’s in Beverly Hills representative of ways in which you hope to evolve Helen’s?

HJ: We have two more spaces that are about to go into construction, one in Miami and one in Studio City. There are Helen’s components in each of those, but nothing quite like what we have in Beverly Hills. Each of those locations also has a full liquor [license], so it didn’t feel right to do this style of wine bar. But I think when I close my eyes and look 10 years down the road, I could see a Helen’s Wine Bar that’s its own thing, sure, but I’m so stoked with what we have now. 

How, more generally, is each location of Helen’s distinct, even though the others are more similar to one another? What have you learned about each neighborhood that you’re in?

HJ: Wherever there’s a Helen’s Wine shop it takes a bit of time for people to realize how they can use it: that you can drink there, shop there, etcetera. Fairfax is the OG, it has our biggest selection of wine, and we have the biggest capability to have back storage. So that’s our mothership. There’s a lot of flexibility and our online business runs outside of a building that’s next door to it.

Brentwood is a satellite that has built this fiercely loyal clientele from dine-in to retail. At each location, we have a lot of wines that overlap and then I’d say 10% to 20% is different from location to location based on what customers are asking for. So it might not be specific labels, but it’s styles of wine. For example, Brentwood drinks a lot more California medium- to full-bodied reds. It’s been cool because we’re like, okay, within our ethos, what are those wines? Let’s identify them. Let’s keep customers happy while also bringing wines in that we really stand behind.

In Slauson, the shop there is rad. A lot of people ask for rieslings and malbec. People love Chianti and sangiovese from Tuscany down there. So that stuff just flies off the shelf. But I think Slauson is a neighborhood where a lot of people who are coming in maybe hadn’t been to Jon & Vinny’s before or hadn’t even heard of us in the beginning. And we worked really hard, even before the opening, to make sure that this was something the community down there wanted, and from there have really tried to just be a part of that neighborhood. 

How are you carving out your niche within the Jon & Vinny’s universe, and how does this new location speak to that?

HJ: In my mind, there’s a lot of potential for Helen’s to grow on the retail side. The online business grows year to year. We do a lot of gifting. And you can also buy any wine we have through the website as well. 

I think in the longer term there are so many avenues I want Helen’s to grow into that it almost feels like ADD. But that’s how I started when we only had Fairfax. I was like, “alright, we got dine-in, we got retail, okay, now we have to build a website, and now we’re gonna have gift boxes.” I think people who worked for me back then thought I was insane. But it all builds to something. I’m excited. I think there’s a path that it could take that I haven’t even seen yet, so I’m really open and looking forward to discovering that in the next few years. 

 

Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.