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Crafting One of LA’s Best Wine Lists—at a Pizza Joint

Helen Johannesen shares the strategy behind her innovative program at Jon & Vinny’s

Jon & Vinny’s is so popular that the only reservation on a recent Saturday was at 4:30 pm, and even then the house was packed. Angelenos love their pizza, but it’s not just the chorizo-laden El Chaparrito, the pickled jalapeño-and-ricotta White Lightning, or the other creative pies or homemade pastas that lure them to this all-day Italian restaurant on Fairfax Avenue. It’s also Helen’s, a tucked-away retail shop.

Visible through a window cut into the blond-wood interior and accessible from a back hallway, Helen’s is the lair of Helen Johannesen. A partner at Jon & Vinny’s, Johannesen, 34, is the beverage director here and at all the restaurants owned by the power duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo: meat-centric Animal, ticketed dining room Trois Mec, and four more. Just 56 square feet, her shop inside Jon & Vinny’s is minuscule, but it’s one of Los Angeles’ most exciting wine stores.

It’s also integral to operations at Jon & Vinny’s. The business model layers on revenue streams, and Johannesen hints that it’s “beta for a much larger concept.” Retail shop, cellar, hangout, catering base, classroom, online sales driver, and wine-list laboratory rolled in one, Helen’s is on the cutting edge of the restaurant wine business. “It’s low cost to operate,” says Johannesen, “and it potentially brings a high sales factor.”

It also brings Jon & Vinny’s the most extraordinary wine list you’ll ever see at a casual Italian eatery. A continually evolving selection of about 577 bottles, the list is far bigger than those at Shook and Dotolo’s fancier places. But it’s based on a well-developed mission: to offer high-integrity, low-input wines from small producers at every price, from bottles like Domaine La Manarine Rosé 2015, a cement-vat Rhône blend for $38, to a 2012 vintage of coveted Domaine Bruno Clair Chambertin Clos de Bèze Grand Cru at $1,136. The upper end reflects the purchasing power and expectations of monied Los Angeles. “It’s a bizarre town,” Johannsen says. “You never know who someone is. We have people who come in and say, ‘Oh, f__k, I can order Puligny-Montrachet.’ That’s great—I’ll take the sales. If it’s not on there, that would be how much we would not have sold.”

Helen's Wines wine menu and wine
Photo by Joshua White.

In fact, she sells some of the high-end wines at a bargain. With Shook and Dotolo’s resources behind her, Johannesen has collected luxury wines in a warehouse for seven years. “I don’t need to mark them up as if I were buying them now,” she says. “That’s an amazing deal for a customer who knows what they’re doing.” With an eye toward investing, she makes money in the long run, and her clientele gets a steal to enjoy with their spaghetti bolognese.

Though Jon & Vinny’s is a destination for wine geeks, “we’re not so precious,” says Johannesen. “It’s dinner and wine. It’s not the Bible.” Her democratizing approach matches the restaurant’s casualness. Three dressed-down sommeliers work at once—a lot of wine help in a house with just 50 seats. They use universal stemware, even for Champagne. And Helen’s feels like an intimate party where everybody’s welcome. Patrons await tables there, browsing shelves for wines to take home. Shoppers pay retail markups of 1.5 times Johannesen’s bottle cost on lower-priced items, and two times the bottle cost on higher-end wines. They can also sip in the store while they wait, but if the bottle is opened in-house, they will pay the price on the restaurant’s wine list, which is around three times the bottle cost.

The pricing differential can be tricky to explain, says Johannesen, and that’s one reason to have so many somms on. “You get to the conversation before it becomes a problem. We verbalize, ‘This is a retail shop, but we are partnered with the restaurant, and we supply their wine list.’ These different levels of markups allow us to stay competitive and fair as a retail shop, but also to provide the level of service that Jon & Vinny’s demands. It’s a necessary piece of covering operational costs, business growth, and the experience we aim to provide.”

The retail shop also helps drive the restaurant list’s lack of regional piety. Like many wine stores, Helen’s covers a lot of geography. But it’s so small that inventory rotates often. Johannesen brings that diversity to Jon & Vinny’s list. “If you oversaturate with Italian, it gets redundant,” she argues. And the cooking here—spicy, tangy, vibrant—begs for eclecticism. “The way the acid, heat, and flavors mix, it’s not pigeonholed into baseline Italian,” Johannesen says. “It takes the palate into different areas. Wine from different countries can accompany that style.”

This is a place where you can, and should, sip Jean-Louis Dutraive Fleurie or another Beaujolais with your Margherita pizza. “Gamay goes well with cheese and sauce and sour [pizza] dough,” say Johannesen. “It has that juicy effect without heaviness or sweetness. It keeps you light on your feet.”

Right now Jon & Vinny’s list includes twice as many reds from France as from Italy. But soon enough, it could look quite different. “I have the luxury of options,” says Johannesen. “The list changes depending on what I’m buying when.” To supply the store and seven restaurants, she orders weekly from 10 to 15 vendors—among them Louis Dressner, Rosenthal, Nomadic, Percy Selections. “I try to taste with people consistently, but there can’t just be one wine in a portfolio that I want. There has to be more of a message.” And everything she samples is fair game for Jon & Vinny’s.

That makes the restaurant’s wine list an immersive adventure, where repeat customers can delve into the different regions that Johannesen has been exploring in her tastings. “It could be big on Spain,” she says. “California reds could number five or fifteen. It’s super current, we move through so much product. It’s boring to stagnate.”

It’s a wild ride, and Johannesen suffered “a lot of mental frustration” figuring out how to organize it. Broad geography made the most sense: Burgundy, Jura, Germany, Italy … Varietals are listed after each wine, and wines appear in order of ascending price. The presentation is straightforward, “not so precious.” And though it’s difficult to get servers to attend her weekly tastings with wine staff, there are enough sommeliers to talk diners through the list’s nuances.

The entire staff does get briefed on wines by the glass—a couple each of sparkling and rosé, four whites, half a dozen reds—during lineup. Housed in an adjoining storeroom, that inventory turns over more quickly than the bottle list. “I don’t keep a bunch of back stock,” says Johannesen. “I would rather have three deliveries one week. It’s healthier for the P&L. I try to keep the glass list to what I’m taking now and love, but I’m not scared of the 86.”

A funky Furlani Vernaccia, an unctuous yet saline Girolamo Russo Etna Rosato, a mineral Chenin Blanc from La Grange Tiphaine—Johannesen uses Jon & Vinny’s as a proving ground for it all. “Sometimes I put stuff on by glass to test out in the moment, and say, ‘Let’s think about the restaurant where this will fit well.’”

Helen’s acts as platform too for the other parts of Johannesen’s business: catering, wine classes, and—the real profit maker—a virtual wine club. Though a second Jon & Vinny’s, and Helen’s, is planned for 2018, Johannesen says, “Fifty percent of the business is a wine club with delivery and a website, so Helen’s next push is to exist in a more virtual space.” Subscribers can buy in at different price levels for monthly, twice a month, or weekly wine drop-offs. Johannesen is applying for a shipping license so she can take the concept beyond Los Angeles.

The restaurant group has a well-developed catering business, Carmelized Productions, which offers wine service at all levels. Even for clients opting out of the food, Johannesen and her team will cater wine only, bringing the bottles, glassware, buckets, ice, and a sommelier. It fits with the something-for-everyone ethos she’s built into Jon & Vinny’s. “I’m providing more access,” she says. “You can still have an experience that comes across as luxury.” Private classes are another added value. In each endeavor, Johannesen tries to make things scalable, “to keep fees low and affordable and have options.”

Options. It could be Johannesen’s mantra at Jon & Vinny’s. After all, “everybody’s different, and everybody likes a certain wine,” she says. “Who cares if it doesn’t go well with meatballs? It’s not my job to micromanage your dining experience. We’re trying to give you a hug.”

Betsy Andrews‘ work can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com. She is also the author of two award-winning books of poetry: New Jersey and The Bottom.

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