Wine Aficionado Helen Johannesen’s Guide to Drinking in LA

As Los Angeles’ leading purveyor of fine grape juice, Helen Johannesen has her hands full: she is the owner of Helen’s Wines, partner in Jon & Vinny’s, and beverage director for Joint Venture restaurant group’s all-star lineup that includes Animal, Petit Trois, and Son of a Gun. Putting her line of work more succinctly, she told us, “I’m the master of my domain,” with a laugh. 

Because in the wine trade business is pleasure, most of Johannesen’s sipping happens at Helen’s, her 6-by-8-foot shop nestled in the back of Jon & Vinny’s. There, she tastes new bottles using her simple philosophy: she only buys wines that she personally tries and loves, and she’ll describe them to you in words that don’t require opening up The Oxford Companion to Wine. In her world, pét-nat is often “kickass,” beaujolais can be “baller,” and most of all, wine is “fun.”

Naturally, we had to ask Johannessen where she goes for a glass when she’s off the clock so that we could share her sage wisdom with you all. By the end of her pro tips, you’ll probably wish that she was your best drinking bud. Don’t worry, we feel that way, too. 


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The most likely time you’ll find me drinking wine is when I’m drinking wine from my own shop, Helen’s Wines. I taste everything I buy and love it sincerely. You can find me drinking it at my house or at a friend’s. It’s got that pink seal of approval [Editor’s note: all of her bottles have a bright, pink “Helen’s” sticker on them]. That’s the number one. But sometimes I like to venture out and go to other establishments. 


With my boyfriend, Alex, we do a little date night at the Osteria Mozza bar once a week on average. Sometimes Alex gets a martini with Sipsmith Gin, which we love. Usually I order off their wine list. You can drink incredible bottles that have been cellared without having to spend a ton of money, like a 2010 Coenobium from those crazy ass nuns that make wine in Umbria.

My other go-to move there is to get an Aperol spritz made with Franciacorta because it’s so much better that way. I don’t know if they get annoyed every time I come in and say, “Please don’t put Prosecco in it. Can you make it with Franciacorta?” But they started doing the swap first, so I feel like if the restaurant opens the door, I’m walking right through.


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I like going to sit at the bar in Lucques in West Hollywood. Like Mozza, Lucques is a classic institution: it’s cozy, it’s chill, and they’re professionals. It’s not crowded with people that I hate. I’ll have a great glass of wine from whatever Caroline [Styne] is picking by the glass.

I always peep the menu because it changes seasonally, even though a lot of the time I default to the steak frites. I ask if they have a ribeye because they usually have a couple—they cut them in half. It’s the perfect meal—so insane that nobody know about it. 


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My boyfriend's studio is in Inglewood, so pretty frequently, we’ll shoot over to Venice where I like two of Travis [Lett’s] places: Gjusta and Gjelina. You can BYOB to Gjusta at night and it’s such a pro move. BYOB Helen’s Wines to Gjusta. It’s the most magical experience you can have. 

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Aside from that, we go to Gjelina—usually at around 10:30pm. I know it sounds crazy. They just have a really well-curated by-the-glass section that’s always new and changing. You want to have a glass of it, you don’t want to have a bottle. What else do I do? 


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Guelaguetza is a Oaxacan restaurant. They have a great mezcal selection—you can get insane sipping mezcals there. The mole is on point. Last time I went there, we ordered the birria [spicy goat stew] and it was insane. I had my birthday at Guelaguetza last year. I fucking love that place it’s so good. 


I have a romantic thing with hotel bars–like, I really like them. My favorite is Tower Bar. I don’t go that often but when I go, I just go all out. I like their ice cream sundae menu. They also do killer baked potato. By that point, you got to get a martini or a Manhattan. Like I said, go all out. 


If you haven’t been, you have to go. Coni’s Seafood is a Mexican seafood—mariscos—spot. You can have a michelada or you can BYOB there. I’d bring something that’s not super dry, like a killer pét-nat or cider. 


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One of my favorite emerging food and wine experiences is at Kismet because it’s a different kind of wine program than than I normally do. There’s a specific mission statement that [chefs-owners] Sara [Kramer] and Sarah [Hymanson] wanted when I came to take over the list: wine made in a specific way that is very natural-focused. 

The ultimate challenge when picking a wine is, would I drink two glasses? That’s my litmus test. I don’t buy a wine because it’s cool but I only want two sips of it. That’s stupid. Kismet has allowed me to stretch in areas and explore new winemakers that I wasn’t pushed to before. And eating that food with the wine? It’s a really awesome convergence of flavor.


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