He­len’s Wines is a worldly lit­tle slice of the pie

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By S .Irene Vir­bila irene.vir­bila@latimes.com

The wine shop at the back of Jon & Vinny’s on Fair­fax Av­enue, the new red- sauce Ital­ian res­tau­rant from the chefs be­hind An­i­mal and Son of a Gun, is about the size of a walk- in closet. And yet the 6- by- 8- foot space holds a whole world of wine. Open the door and it’s like walk­ing into some­one’s pri­vate cel­lar, al­beit with prices and com­ments on the bot­tles and a faded kilim rug on the f loor.

A sign ex­plains, “Re­tail prices: Look on the back of the bot­tle. Dine- in prices on wine list. # its com­pli­cated.” As a visi­tor reads this out loud, He­len Jo­han­nesen, whose shop this is, whoops with laugh­ter. “We try to keep a sense of hu­mor about it.”

He­len’s Wines ( www. he­lens wines. com) is the pro­ject of Jo­han­nesen, di­rec­tor of oper­a­tions for the hand­ful of restau­rants owned by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Do­tolo. She ini­tially came on as bev­er­age di­rec­tor at An­i­mal six years ago af­ter work­ing at Craft. She’s a part­ner in the new res­tau­rant.

The tiny shop func­tions as both Jon & Vinny’s wine list and a re­tail shop where any­body can wan­der in and buy some bot­tles to take home any­time the res­tau­rant is open. The 200 to 300 se­lec­tions — depend­ing on what’s com­ing in and go­ing out on any given week — are each tagged with the re­tail price and the res­tau­rant price. Or at least that’s the plan.

Jo­han­nesen is only about a quar­ter of the way through tag­ging the wines. A bot­tle of 2014 Fran­cois Cro­chet Sancerre is marked re­tail $ 35, res­tau­rant $ 54, and on the back, the tag reads, “Awe­some! Clean/ lean/ per­fect.” A nearby Chenin Blanc reads, “A sin­gle clos of bom­bas­tic Chenin Blanc from a master. This wine will kick your ass and put it all in per­spec­tive.” Jo­han­nesen only stocks wines that she loves.

Many of those bot­tles hap­pen to be French, which could seem odd for an Ital­ian- Amer­i­can res­tau­rant. But Jo­han­nesen says the wines go beau­ti­fully with the food. She’s also got some Ital­ian, of course, but they’re def­i­nitely on the eclec­tic side, some Cal­i­for­nia too, some Ger­man, some Aus­trian — and even some wines from Cor­sica and Por­tu­gal.

She knows how to pick them. Stop­ping by the shop, it’s all too tempt­ing to walk out with half a dozen hard- to- find bot­tles. Jo­han­nesen isn’t daunted by the small space. She says it has forced her to fo­cus and tightly cu­rate the se­lec­tions. And, of course, the list changes all the time.

Din­ers do come in and pick up a bot­tle to have in the res­tau­rant, but most guests or­der off the wine list. Some­times she parks peo­ple wait­ing for a ta­ble in­side the shop. “It’s great for par­ties of eight,” says Jo­han­nesen. “I bring them wine, and they dance to the hip- hop we play at night.” It’s also one way to keep warm in the chilly 58- de­gree space.

The shop it­self is just phase one. In a cou­ple of weeks, Jo­han­nesen will be rolling out a wine de­liv­ery ser­vice. She’s also ex­cited about a se­ries of in­for­mal tast­ings and classes she’s plan­ning. The f irst few will be just for women and in pri­vate homes, but soon she’ll be open­ing them up to the public.

The wine de­liv­ery as­pect is key. Think about it. Now you can or­der up a bot­tle of Paolo Bea’s Sagrantino- based Rosso de Veo from Um­bria to go with your pizza and have it de­liv­ered to you while you’re in your pa­ja­mas.

Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

HE­LEN JO­HAN­NESEN makes the most of the cozy nook in­side Jon & Vinny’s, and soon she’ll be of­fer­ing de­liv­ery ser­vice as well.

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