Please tell us who you are and what you do professionally.
My name is Helen Johannesen and I love food & wine!!! I love it so much that I made it my life. I am a sommelier in Los Angeles and partner in a restaurant called Jon & Vinny’s that has a wine shop inside called helen’s.
Have you always been passionate about food + wine? What was your motivation for starting Helen’s Wines?
YES! I have always been obsessed. As a child I always wanted to go out to eat at restaurants and tap dance all the way there and ask a million questions, and have anxiety about ordering the right thing. BUT We mostly ate at home, my mom is a killer cook, she’s the best. Food and how it’s grown was a very important part of my childhood. My mom had a massive vegetable garden at our summer house and it would produce so much abundance that she would pickle and preserve things to last us the entire year. Growing up in New York City this was not the norm with my friends. Like, so embarrassing that our car smelled like spring onions ALWAYS. Going into apartment building basements in the winter to pick up our CSA box was so unusual for most people but I am so grateful for the experience. I got super obsessed with wine through food and how the two things work together and can completely enhance and transport an experience.
The wine industry feels so Old World (in a beautiful way.) Have you noticed any shifts in the industry (either positive or negative) since you started?
The industry has changed so much in the last five to ten years. Los Angeles was like a desert as far as the diversity of wine when I first started buying for animal ten years ago. The demand has grown and now we are in the thriving and throbbing wine-centric metropolis that is so radical. I think there are so many trends to trip out on, the second rise of a new domestic wine identity that has nothing to do with Robert Parker and oaky chardonnay; natural wine being accepted (finally!!) by the mainstream; customers demanding excellence and quality in the growing and making of the wine; people being interested and education...the list could go on forever. Listen, ten years ago I had to hand-sell wine made from chenin blanc grapes to guests, now people want orange wine and Zibbibio from Pantaleria. It’s a dreamscape!!
Wine culture is typically one that people are intimidated by, you make wine so fun and approachable, was this intentional? Is there a crash course podcast or article that women can read to feel up to speed and confident to order amazing (and clean) wine?
Thank you. This is such a nice and humbling thing to say. I don’t know how to be any other way than myself. But my approach and professionalism in wine definitely stemmed from being put down and put off by wine professionals in the past. I felt alienated from a culture I also felt very much a part of. So I decided to say fuck it and just do what felt good and how it feels good. Why make people feel like shit when you can help them learn and feel amazing? I actually have a podcast! It’s called Wine Face! And it’s amazing!! And you will learn a lot about wine and it’s very fun to listen to. I get asked this question a lot though and I wish there was an easier solution. The reality is with any complex topic the knowledge is best retained in layers. So take small gold nuggets and add them to your database and before you know it you will have an armory. There are also some books but the way I learned everything about wine was reading articles, tasting wine, listening to people who knew more, talking, & asking questions (even the dumb ones).
What has been the most exciting part of your journey?
So many aspects of this journey have blown my mind! When we opened Jon & Vinny’s we had no idea how strongly people would respond. It’s truly amazing. I think the most exciting thing for me was creating helen’s from the ground up. It was a confusing room in the back of Jon & Vinny’s that everyone thought was an off-limit cellar to now a thriving business within a business. Also, the trips I have been able to take have been next level and the winemakers I have gotten to know are some of the most special and unique people in my life.
Being a female entrepreneur is a powerful thing. Can you please share a few words of wisdom/advice to someone that wants to start her own company?
Self-doubt is a tricky thing... Don’t let it get the best of you. I always start every day new, no matter how shitty or fabulous the previous day was. And the biggest thing is: They can’t read your mind! You have to ask for what you want and do what you think is right.
Where do you find inspiration and how do you stay inspired?
I find inspiration in art, music, nature and gardening. I love having as many food and wine experiences as I can. I am inspired by my amazing friends who it took me a long time to find. I am inspired by my partner, Alex Becerra, who is my favorite artist and a miraculous human.
Are you listening to any podcasts that you like right now?
I love Second Life, Slow Burn, Here’s the Thing, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Super Soul, Revisionist History, Broken Record...can’t resist a little Fresh Air….!
Bonus! Your wines are SO good, can you give us a few of your current favorites?!
AHHHH too many!! JKJK Here are some of my favorites! Also! We have a national wine club! It’s the best! We ship it out all over the country and I write little descriptions to the wines with pairings-- it’s the best. Everything you need to know is online at our 2018 website! Helenswines.com
NV Domaine du Facteur, La Bulle du Facteur, Vin de France, Val de Loire, Gamay - Pet Nat!
2018 Chateau Saint Anne, Bandol, Mourvedre/Cinsault/Grenache - Rose!
2018 Vini Viti Vinci, Sauvignon M, Vin de France, Sauvignon Blanc - Orange wine!
2018 Agnes et Rene Mosse, Vin de France, Anjou, Chenin Blanc
2018 G. Descombes, Morgon, Gamay
Photos taken by our friend, Nicki Sebastian.