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In 2015, Helen Johannesen embarked on a mission with the goal to create the best food and wine experience in Los Angeles and opened helen’s wines. We discussed her love and passion for curating the best wines from around the world, current wine trends and even her upcoming jewelry line!
MELISSA: So, spill the grapes, what got you into wine and food?
HELEN: Ever since I was little I have been obsessed with growing food and going out to restaurants. My mom cooked everything. I started working in a restaurant in Wisconsin and I just loved it. I felt good at something. It felt natural and easy. I’d always loved entertaining and it took it to this next level.
When I moved to L.A., there were about 10 restaurants I wanted to work at. I was able to work in a massive wine cellar and taste a lot of wine. It wasn’t my ideal wine that I was tasting, but I didn’t know any better. It just sparked my interest.
I then started at Animal. They told me I could do whatever I wanted with the wine program. I saw it as an outlet for creativity. I thought, “why would you go to a restaurant and not have the best possible beverage experience?” There are a lot of great restaurants that have terrible wine. I ran our company and was our Beverage Director for 6 years. We then became business partners in this project, which now maintains most of my focus. We own the restaurant and the wine shop together.
MELISSA: How do you choose your wines?
HELEN: It’s a couple of things. One, you want to have by-the-glass wines. Something for everyone, from flavour profile to price point, without having too many options because wine goes bad.
I get to change stuff a lot because I get 4 cases and then it’s gone until next year. It’s also based on what I taste. That’s what people are orbiting when they shop at Helen’s. I’ve tasted it, and I’d drink two glasses of it, so I’m going to sell it to you. I think there is something for everyone, but not everyone will love everything.
MELISSA: You’re an advocate of small production vineyards and winemakers with integrity. Why are those factors so important to you and your brand?
HELEN: We focus on small production because wine is an agricultural product at its start. It is a living organism. When it’s opened, the oxygen changes the dynamic; it can live and die. For me, it’s about finding farmers who really understand the soil and their location. The concept of “terroir”, is a French concept about geological substructures. The topsoil, the terrain, the way it’s facing and that’s what’s informing what grapes you plant into the ground. When you start thinking of things in those ways, it’s hard to not drink a wine that’s not made with those considerations in mind.
MELISSA: What should the average person be looking for when they are buying wine?
HELEN: It’s a lot of research and tasting. Wine is a cumulative education and there are some people who do it so much better. We’re in Los Angeles, everyone is like “I go to the farmer’s market!” But then they will go and buy the worst wine, or labels they know, or their friends will know. All these things are all marketing at some point in time. What myself and other wine professionals are trying to do is remind people that they have a choice. They could have a better experience and ingest fewer chemicals and at the same time champion smaller people who need this financing more.
I've tasted it, and I'd drink two glasses of it, so I'm going to sell it to you. I think there is something for everyone, but not everyone will love everything.
MELISSA: How do you know a wine is organic? Is it printed on the bottle?
HELEN: It’s not. It’s not regulated that way. It’s one of the hardest factors for the consumer, which is why you’d want to find a wine shop that you trust. The way you can best get to know if a wine is organic is trusting where it’s bought from, or you start to get to know the importers and distributors. An importer can be thought of as a gallery curator. They are curating wines with a similar ethos and philosophy.
MELISSA: Gotta ask: Red or white? And why?!
HELEN: It depends on the time of year more than anything. It’s mood, temperature and vibe that make you gravitate towards feelings of warmth and coziness or coolness. I like drinking chilled reds the most. Nothing too heavy, more mineral-driven, higher acid, bright red wine. But I love rosé! Stylistically, I like a darker rosé, that’s super dry, like salty watermelon. We’ve had some amazing ones this summer from Italy. I love sparkling wines with no added sugars, that are just electric and dry with a bit of a funk to them, like a cidery aspect. Like a Perignon or Bisson. I like to enjoy wine, its less of a consumption to me.
MELISSA: Being in such a creative field, your day to day must change quite a bit. What does your “typical” day look like?
HELEN: I always drink one cup of coffee a day. I make it at home. I chill for a minute and get dressed. When I get to work, every day is different. A lot of helen’s wines is rooted here on Fairfax, so it’s usually checking in with my assistant. I usually pound the keyboard for a while, we’re so small and grateful to be busy. I am still doing proposals and orders.
MELISSA: How many orders per day do you get on average?
HELEN: It depends. We deliver everywhere in L.A. and Malibu for 10 dollars. Anywhere between 10-20 on average, sometimes more. The holidays are a very different story.
MELISSA: Do you have a self-care routine?
HELEN: I get my nails done. I like a buff. I work out and play tennis. I just started a new workout that I’m obsessed with. It’s a version of a bar class. It’s one of the most complete classes I’ve ever taken. You get the cardio and your legs and muscles are burning. I’ve only been going for two and a half weeks, 2 – 3 times a week and I’ve already seen changes.
MELISSA: If we were to raid your closet, what kind of accessory would we find the most of?
HELEN: Shoes. A lot of shoes. A lot of sneakers and Vans and Cortez’s. I have a couple pairs of Birkenstocks. I have a collection of Gucci and Chanel. But I wear them, I’m not a monster.
MELISSA: Any accessory you never leave home without?
HELEN: I always wear this topaz. My oldest friend, Amanda, gave it to me. I always bring a Mason Pearson hairbrush. I’m pretty low maintenance in that sense.
MELISSA: What’s has been the best food and wine trend to happen over the past few years?
HELEN: Social media instigates trends. People are like, “rosé is coming out of nowhere!” But we opened 3 years ago with a rosé wall. And now it’s about orange wine. Crazy! It’s one of the oldest styles of wines that has been made for thousands of years.
I love wine-based trends because it gets my customers fired up an excited about the products I have. I think people are into natural wine right now, or conscientiously made wine which is awesome for us, because it’s what we’ve always done. I think people are going to get into entertaining in a different way. We’ve been doing these wine bars and we set up an amazing display with glasses. It’s affordable. I like that podcasts are getting big and more popular.
MELISSA: I heard that a podcast is in the works?!?
HELEN: Yes, it’s called “Wine Face.” I am very excited. It’s like a wine class. I teach a lot of wine classes already. Its 15-minute segments, I think it’s going to be cool.
MELISSA: I love the jewelry you’ve got on today. Tell me about it!
HELEN: My friend Henry Vincent has a gold mine in the Yukon, and he makes this mold that looks like a Yves St Laurent heel. This ring is called Bending Woman, and we make it in silver and gold. We are going to start this jewelry line. We are going to call it Henry Vincent since he is the designer. I wear it every day.