Portrait of a Girlboss: Helen Johannesen of Helen’s Wines

Image by Holly Liss

Image by Holly Liss

Step inside the bustling pizza-and-pasta joint Jon & Vinny’s off Fairfax and the first thing you’ll notice is the sleek, blonde wood paneling along the walls, or the open kitchen from whence all sorts of stomach-seducing pizza and pasta dishes are emerging, or the thump of hip-hop over conversations emanating from an invariably packed dining room. What you won’t see right away is Helen’s Wines, a little jewel box of a wine shop tucked in the back of the building. The proprietor is Helen Johannesen, who in addition to running the shop, a curated wine-delivery program and wine-education classes, also oversees the wine programs some of LA’s best restaurants: Animal, Son of a Gun, Trois Mec, Petit Trois, and of course, Jon & Vinny’s. She was recently named one of the 2016 Sommeliers of the Year by Food & Wine magazine and talked with Girlboss about bringing natural wines to the masses (read: chemical-free, way-better-for-you deliciousness), the hustle of running a small business, and what it’s like to run your own show in an industry dominated by men.

So, let’s start with the basics. Why wine?
I have always been passionate about food and restaurants, and in my early twenties I knew I wanted to devote my career to building what I think are some of the most killer restaurants in Los Angeles. 
When I started with Jon and Vinny, we just had Animal. They gave me the wine program and basically said I could do whatever I wanted. It was so exciting. Since then, we’ve built six restaurants and I have a wine shop—it’s unbelievable!

Wine hasn’t always been a super encouraging industry for women, historically speaking—the general public tends to think of a wine expert as middle-aged man swirling his glass, talking loudly about the wine’s “pronounced barnyard quality.” But you’re kind of the opposite—a young woman who’s inclusive in your approach. Particularly with the shop, it seems like you’re really committed to making wine an accessible, fun, delicious experience. 
Seven years ago, I was one of maybe two female sommeliers that I would see at tastings in Los Angeles. But from very early on, I believed in three things: 1.) Only buy and serve good wine. 2.) Don't listen to the hype, and 3.) Never get intimidated. Wine is fucking intimidating. It is a vast and seemingly endless database of producers, regions, soil types, weather patterns—so many things that can sound so condescending very easily. 
I decided I wanted to run finessed programs that are not dumbed down, but also help people learn about what they are drinking and get exposed to new things. I guess I was born this way; I tend to put people at ease. It's so much less about what I know, and so much more about giving people what they want and pursuing greater understanding. 

Congrats on the Food & Wine nod, by the way! How has being singled out as one of the most prominent curators in the wine industry changed your personal mindset?
I was so shocked! And incredibly honored and humbled. To be honest, I try not to let those things into my life too much. I have to stay focused and keep my head down on the straight hustle!

A lot of your selection revolves around natural wines, which we’re starting to see much more of in restaurants around town and across the country. Why do you think this natural-wine movement has become so resonant?
I think that as health has become more of a topic and en vogue, especially in Los Angeles, it only makes sense that people are going to want to consider everything they are consuming. I have always supported natural wine and wine that is made with low intervention; at the end of the day, winemakers are really farmers at the start. What they do in the vineyard directly affects what ends up in the bottle.  And having the same care and understanding as the best vegetable farmers is crucial. It’s so ironic to me that people will stock up at the farmer's market for the week but then turn around and drink some chemical-riddled wine from Trader Joe's.

So there’s rad stuff like the Food & Wine nod and having a big neon sign with your name on it, etc., etc. But what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a business owner? Some of your biggest setbacks or failures?
Those things are amazing! And I remind myself of that daily. One challenge has been the fact that the shop is inside another business. It can be confusing for guests. And training staff, figuring out delivery logistics and how to communicate properly about the wine—all a big challenge at times. But every day is new for me. I shake it off and just go for it. 

What advice would you give to women looking to break into the food and wine industry? Or starting a small business in general?
Start small, stay focused and grow organically. It’s the most pure and sustainable way. Don't worry about PR, and if you have business partners, make sure you trust them and that they support you. For the food and wine world, I always recommend that women work in a restaurant in some capacity. It’s a beast of a business and not for everyone.

You’ve got a lot going on—bouncing between restaurants and your shop, going to tastings, getting the delivery program set up. What does your average day look like?
(Laughs) Just like that! Every day is different, and that works out really well for me. I do try and anchor a good deal of time at the shop, but I am doing a lot of the deliveries myself right now to understand how to best structure the system. It’s really fun. I get to work hard, be creative and be around amazing people. 

And when the day is over, do you unwind with… a glass of wine? Or are you totally wined-out by that time?
Sparkling water! I am straight-up addicted. Sometimes I have a glass of wine. Hot mineral salt bath, delicious dinner, let my mind settle and create space. 

Interview by Deena Drewis