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Helen's Wines at Jon & Vinny's blends curated finds with a sense of humor

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 floor.

A sign explains, "Retail prices: Look on the back of the bottle. Dine-in prices on wine list. #itscomplicated." 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.helenswines.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 first 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.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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