A love of fine dining paired with a passion to incorporate farm-to-table practices in every dining experience was what inspired Helen Johannesen to choose a career in the food and wine industry. Originally from NYC, she moved to Los Angeles to work at renowned chef Tom Colicchio’s Craft LA (often regarded as one of LA’s best restaurants), before signing on with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (of the legendary Jon & Vinny’s) in July of 2009.
Today she is a partner at Jon & Vinny’s and the owner of Helen’s, the gem box retail wine shop nestled in the back. Helen is the Beverage Director for not only Jon & Vinny’s, but for all associated restaurants in the group: animal and Son of a Gun. She regularly hosts wine classes, has a curated wine club and online gifting business, and was named Best New Sommelier by Food & Wine in 2016. Additionally, Helen’s Wines will be opening its first wine bar concept in Jon & Vinny's Beverly Hills location, opening this summer.
We recently caught up with the wine expert (and new mama) to discuss business, taste testings, and creating time away from work for family.
My life in wine began with food, restaurants, service, and an obsession with quality and deliciousness. As I grew in the industry, I would taste better and better wines as I was exposed to more grapes and regions, and my fascination grew. It was an area where I easily retained information and always wanted to read more. I have since dedicated my life to wine, education, inclusiveness, and, most importantly, hospitality. There were definitely a few wines along the way that totally tripped me up in the best way — opening my eyes to how big the world is and how important soil and winemakers are. 10 years ago, you would dine at an amazing restaurant but the wines by the glass would be so meh. It was mismatched, and I felt a personal mission to change that. But now, it's become more than wine and more than me. I want to support farmers and create opportunities for my team while still learning and finding the dopest wine!
Honestly, people think it's super glamorous but it can be grueling! Selecting and purchasing wines is a process of research, but also consists of in-person tastings with the people who distribute the wine. It can feel a little sales heavy, but usually the representatives are homies and we want the wines. The process of tasting is not just getting drunk 24/7… maybe it is for some people but I would be a hot mess if that was the case. We spit out everything we taste and limit the number of appointments per day because your body naturally absorbs a certain amount of alcohol even if you don't swallow it. It sucks when the wines are bad, but it’s amazing when the wines are good because now we have a sneak peak on what they are like and how to explain them to people.
The pandemic was challenging but we made it through. Seeing my team connect with each other and our customers is the best feeling. Fostering a community that is positive where people feel inspired and happy to come to work is so important to me. I love giving people space to excel, and then watching it happen. Connecting customers with wines they love is such a joy.
Yes! We love to do a million things at Helen's! In the past two years, our wine club and gifting services have become even more popular. We do amazing gift boxes through our e-commerce site helenswines.com and ship nationwide. During the pandemic we tried to continue some of these activities through Instagram Live tastings where people could buy the wine in advance. We also did virtual classes and even some outdoor events once vaccines rolled around. We are working on bringing the podcast back and doing events again (mostly outside), while also hosting small classes.
I was so lucky to have such a killer team in place! It all happened at the right time in my life. I had two miscarriages before getting pregnant with Skyy, so that was challenging and not something I wanted to really bring into my work environment. At first I was nervous about doing too much when I was pregnant, but my body was strong and it felt amazing to be at work. I worked up until my due date and then Skyy came 12 days later!
Of course it has deepened my understanding of work/life balance. Being there for Skyy is so important and I am incredibly grateful that I am able to put him to bed each night. 10 years ago I was working six nights a week. I was in a very different place. Having a child also makes me want to fight for the things that I believe in, seek out projects that interest me, and continue to grow and expand. All of the hard work I have put into building Helen's allows me to take the time I need when I need to be fully present for my family.