Talking Terroir with
Helen Johannesen

Friends & Family

May 25th, 2017

Interview by Keaton McGinty
Photography by Jessica Antola

In light of Bird’s recent touchdown in Los Angeles, we thought it only fitting to shine a spotlight on a few of the women inspiring us out on the Golden Coast. Next up: Helen Johannesen, the woman whose imaginative palate has been shaping the wine program at a handful of our favorite dining establishments – including Animal, Son Of A Gun, Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Kismet and Jon & Vinny's – over the past nine years. We caught up with Helen to discuss the appeal of Los Angeles’ infinite potential, crisp rosé on a summer evening, and her recent solo venture, Helen’s Wines, which you’ll find tucked away in a corner at Jon & Vinny’s.

Helen, it’s great to chat with you! I read an article you wrote for Munchies recently about freezing rosé, and it was the best suggestion - such a fun dinner party trick.

Yes, frosé! It was more of an accident while trying to chill a few bottles for too long – what I thought would be a disaster was actually a delicious slushy! I don’t make it often but it’s so easy. Not all of my at-home recreational ideas translate into larger scale productions, so frozen rosé was a nice surprise.  

You got your start working for restaurants in Madison, WI. What brought you to LA?

I grew up in New York but fell in love with Los Angeles as a teenager. The city completely captured this essence of opportunity because there was no social hierarchy or fundamental thing that defined me; whereas in New York, I felt there existed more rigid expectations. The farmers’ markets were another draw - as a teenager, I remember visiting California and just being in awe of their avocados. It felt like a different universe and so that was really the impetus for me to move.

Was wine always a passion or was the route more incidental?

Well, food was always a conversation in my house growing up and understanding how things were made was paramount to my childhood. My mom made everything from scratch and we had a vegetable garden in the summer. So I’d say my love for food came first and wine was the evolution of that.

Wine became a more integral part of my life when I got the job working at Animal with Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo] in LA. They asked if I could run their wine program and I said, “totally!” - despite my experience being pretty minimal at that point. In that sense, it was sort of fake it ‘till you make it, which has been an amazing journey of self-education over the past nine years. Helen’s Wines is a culmination of that journey because in addition to overseeing their wine program, I’ve learned how to run a business with Jon & Vinny. I feel really lucky for having had this opportunity because now I’m able to apply the knowledge I’ve acquired through trial and error. I couldn’t ask for two better business partners - they’re like my brothers.

With such a successful career in hospitality, I’d assume you’ve got a knack for hosting a killer party. What’s your idea of the perfect gathering on a summer evening and of course, what are you drinking?

I love entertaining but will typically try to either prepare dishes ahead of time or cook something communal. My ideal night consists of a few friends and maybe grilling some oysters, vegetables, or fish. I make a mean margarita but if I’m serving wine, it really depends who I’m with - I never want great wine to become too precious. On a typical summer night I’ll usually serve rosé or an array of white wines, something you don’t have to keep super cold but that’s balanced with great quality. I like to make people happy so I try to always take into account what they would want.

That’s what’s unique about your approach to wine - this all-inclusive desire to make it an accessible and fun experience. It’s quite special.  

Right, if you’re drinking with a group of people who know about wine, then naturally, it’s going to be a different conversation. Educating people is really key because wine shouldn’t be challenging or intimidating. It can be fun.

What are you most inspired by at the moment, in terms of building your program?

I have a vested interest in developing my relationship with California wines because nine years ago, I really didn’t like what was out there and no one would buy a California wine unless it was ranked. Thankfully, people are less obsessed with the opinions of wine critics which is allowing more experimentation and newer, interesting wines. There are a few badass female winemakers who I’m falling in love with, such as Faith Armstrong Foster. She makes this Malvasia Pét-Nat under her flagship label, Onward, that is one of the most elegant expressions of that style of winemaking. It’s balanced and dreamy with beautiful aromatics. Her wines are made with incredible integrity, very low intervention and so good.

So tell me, how’d you meet [Owner and Creative Director of Bird] Jen?

When Bird opened the new Los Angeles boutique, Ruth De Jong - who is an old friend of Jon & Vinny’s and designed our restaurant, Son of a Gun - put Jen and I in touch. I always shop at Bird’s Brooklyn locations whenever I’m in town and think she does such an impressive job. Bird only carries brands that I love, own, and wear, so I’m excited to see their diverse collection come to LA in a real flagship way. New York gets a lot of the best things from some of these designers; a lot of brands never make it out here so it can be challenging to find these great pieces. It seems like that’s changing though and the fashion world is becoming more influential in this town.

Has the West Coast influenced your personal style?

I might own more flowy dresses, but I’m pretty tried and true to where I come from. I like elegance, but I’m also a fan of sportswear and streetwear - anything that’s comfortable and fun. My personal style is kind of crazy because I wear so many different things, but I’m typically drawn to pieces that are colorful and clean.

Do you have a go-to designer or are you more drawn to specific pieces?

I’m definitely drawn to certain things but do have a few designers who I’ll always come back to. Rachel Comey and Isabel Marant are both great, but on the flip side I’m also a hardcore Adidas fan. I want to feel good about what I’m wearing and always go for quality and longevity; I’m the kind of person who would rather buy one expensive thing than ten inexpensive things.

Warmer days are on the horizon, so we asked Helen to give us her top rosé picks for the summer festivities ahead. Here are a few bottles we’ll be stocking for the months to come.

2016 Mas de Cadenet, Sainte Victoire, Côtes de Provence
The pale color of this rosé steals many hearts and minds, and on the palate it does not disappoint. While some Provence rosés have that pale color, they can sometimes be a little clunky and thick or just straight up boring. This one has sensational tropical notes and bright acidity. 

2016 Corbières, Gris de Gris, Domaine Fontsainte
Corbières is a little area tucked away in south western France that produces simple but incredibly executed wines. This wine is pale in color, has a bounty of strawberries & kiwis on the nose and a fresh, bright, clean taste on the palate. No brainer to always have in your fridge. 

2016 Commanderie, Chateau Peyrassol, Provence  
Put the Whispering Angel DOWN. Seriously, don't waste your money. This wine is your answer.  Château Peyrassol is incredible, classic Provence rosé, its pale color is coupled with round suppleness and subtle acidity. The freshness gives way to the seriousness of this wine, and if you fall in love, you can step it up with their Château bottling that simply blows minds. 

2016 Pinot Noir, Hawkeye Ranch, Onward, Redwood Valley
Faith Foster Armstrong makes this wine up in the Redwood valley, the AVA that is just west of Napa Valley. She makes some of the most badass wines in California right now. I am smitten. This rosé is made from one specific vineyard and has so much brightness, energy & finesse. 

2016 Côtes du Rhône, Domaine de la Manarine
I love calling this my "myth busters" wine. It is made from a blend of Syrah & Grenache in the Côtes du Rhône and possesses a that slightly darker pink hue that can sometimes make consumers nervous. Darker pink does not necessarily mean "sweet". This wine is super high acid, and actually much dryer than many of the Provence rosés out there. And added bonus after the fresh factor: It's so good.