Meet Isabel Hirshberg, an Elkins Park native and Princeton University graduate who’s offering socially-distanced, at-home wine tastings and food pairings.
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When Isabel Hirshberg’s fellowship at a Chilean vineyard was cut short in March due to COVID-19, she had just 24 hours to gather her things and head back home to Elkins Park.
She packed only the essentials.
“I had to prioritize wine over souvenirs,” she said. “I’d rather leave some beat-up clothing than bottles of wine.”
Those 12 bottles of wine (she packed four in three suitcases — without any breaking in transit) served as the foundation for a new coronavirus-era endeavor Hirshberg began once she returned to the Philly region: socially-distanced, at-home wine tastings and food pairings.
“It started as a fun quarantine activity with my family and my little pod of neighbors, then one of the neighbors wanted to host it with their other pod,” she said.
In an effort to continue her education as she prepares to take the introductory sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers in September, Hirshberg, 23, decided to offer her at-home tastings to the public.
On the first day she posted about it on the “Elkins Park Happenings!” Facebook group in July, Hirshberg fielded more than six dozen inquiries from people who were thirsty for more than wine; they were thirsty for a night out while still staying in.
“It’s so difficult to celebrate special occasions and events right now,” Hirshberg said. “If you’re drinking a lot of wine and want to learn more, this is a very unique experience.”
That’s because Hirshberg doesn’t offer just red and white tastings. Depending upon her client’s interests, she gets as specific as Old World vs. New World pinot noirs and Bordeaux varietals that have left France. She sources most of her wine from direct-to-consumer vineyards, Total Wine & More, and Wine.com.
Since her first love is actually food (as evidenced by her Instagram account @eatsbyiz), Hirshberg not only pairs each wine with a specific “nibble” for tasting, she also cooks and bakes those nibbles herself.
At a tasting last weekend, she made black-cardamom-and-clove blondies to pair with a petit verdot and red wine brownies to pair with a carménère .
She also creates sumptuous charcuterie boards, which are separate from the wine and nibbles, but can be added on to the experience. Hirshberg brings all her own wine glasses and equipment for the tastings, which are done outside in her clients’ backyards and patios.
A four-bottle tasting, which usually lasts around two-and-a-half hours, typically costs between $200 and $240, depending on the wines, she said.
Hirshberg grew up with a love for food (her senior project at William Penn Charter School in 2015 looked at the economics of opening a bakery) and has always been interested in the relationship between food and wine.
During the summer after her junior year at Princeton University, Hirshberg interned with a software company in New York City, but at night and on weekends she took a second job working at Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, a high-end store with “a wine cellar the size of five football fields in the basement,” she said.
“I loved working with people, finding out what kind of wine they like to drink and what kind of experience they’re looking for in a bottle,” she said.
After graduating from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in public and international affairs and a minor in Spanish, Hirshberg continued her education in enology (the study of wine making) and viticulture (the cultivation of grapes) by joining what was supposed to be a yearlong fellowship program at the Kingston Family Vineyards in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, 10 miles from the Pacific coast.
From August to March, her mornings began with coffee and wine, which she had to taste to make sure it hadn’t turned overnight. (”We’d spit it out because you don’t want to be drinking wine at 9 a.m.”)
Hirshberg, who is fluent in Spanish, hosted tastings for tour groups, studied the machinery used to make wine, and walked the vineyards with the head wine maker as he taught her about vines and soil composition.
“They really wanted us to feel immersed in the experience,” she said. “I loved the work I was doing down there.”
After COVID-19 forced her to return to Elkins Park, where she now lives with her parents, Hirshberg completed her fellowship remotely, and even hosted virtual wine tastings with the vineyard’s head wine maker over Zoom.
But it’s been offering the in-person, at-home wine tastings (via email@example.com) that have kept Hirshberg on her feet and in touch with her favorite part of wine — introducing a good bottle to others so they may enjoy a shared experience.
“I wanted to keep learning, myself, and one of the best ways to learn is applying it,” she said. “That’s the thing I love about these tastings — I’m learning, and if the individuals love wine, I want to learn from them, too.”
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