This isn’t a restaurant review because Cree Wine Company isn’t just any restaurant – it’s a sensory experience. Located in Hampton, New Jersey in the recently renovated historic Perryville Inn, this destination wine bar and tasting room offers delights for the palate and all the other senses.
The Soul of Wine
Cree Wine Company is the culmination of Master of Wine, Chris Cree’s lifelong fascination with viticulture and the myriad possibilities of pairing foods with wines. Born and raised in New Jersey, Cree became interested in wine while working at a liquor store during High School. He was fortunate to grow up in a family which exposed him to travel and different foods as a child. He worked as many hours as he could at that part-time job. In Cree’s senior year he was able to arrange a trip to Europe; he was resourceful enough to leverage some of his liquor store contacts to set up wine tours throughout Germany and Austria. Cree was able to see firsthand the direct impact of climate, soil and temperature on the grapes. He is passionate when he explains that wine-making really encompasses all disciplines; science, art, geology.
Cree stayed with the liquor store for six years and became the Sales Manager. He saw his future in importing wine. He took a job at the award-winning Pluckemin Inn and that’s where Cree got an education in operating a restaurant with a special events program. Cree continued to travel and learn, visiting vineyards in the US and abroad. He cites visiting the Robert Sinskey Vineyards tasting room in Napa as a pivotal moment of inspiration. Lots of vineyards have tasting rooms, and lots of restaurants offer food and wine – the careful combination of tapas-style plates paired with specific wines in this tasting room environment is something quite unique in New Jersey.
Mastery of Wine
Chris Cree is also rather unique. He is currently the only Master of Wine in the state of New Jersey. The requirements to become a Master of Wine are rigorous and intimidating. It involves thirty-six blind taste tests over three days, several written essays and a research paper. It takes a minimum of three years to complete this course and test to see if you pass. Prior to 1989 you could only study in London; New York and Sydney were added later to make it open to more international candidates. Cree had to secure three letters of recommendation just to apply to take the course. He is very candid when he says that even with his already extensive knowledge of wines, he was blown away day one by the required level of detail. Cree went into the program in 1993 and became a Master of Wine in 1996. There are currently only 418 worldwide and only 56 in the United States. The current pass rate is less than ten percent.
The Ideal Setting
In 2020, Cree was ready for new challenges. He undertook a million-dollar renovation of the historic Perryville Inn. Constructed in 1813, the Inn had long been a stagecoach stop along the Philadelphia trail. The Inn was named for Commodore Perry, as there is no actual Perryville. It was moved in 1960, a few miles from its past location on Route 78. It now sits on a quieter spot along Perryville Road and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This gorgeous old brick Federal-style building still has some original interior brick walls, fireplaces and original pine flooring. Architect Suzanne Perez has done an incredible job of marrying the old details with a warm inviting modern touch.
A Visual Feast
Cree Wine Bar is visually striking. I think it’s the addition of selected pieces from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art that really completes the “wow effect.” Jim Petrucci owned the Perryville Inn building and was a long-time associate of Cree’s. It seemed only natural to exhibit some of these works in a building that showcases not only wine and food, but also gallery quality art. The collection rotates seasonably, just like the menu.
Wine & Staff – the Older, the Better
Cree Wine Company opened in November 2020. As they prepare for the one-year anniversary party, it’s obvious the thought and care that went into the creation of the establishment. The physical aspect is stunning. The human side, the personnel side, that’s where Cree is working on striking that delicate balance. Staffing is always one of the biggest challenges in running any food-based business. Coming from that background, Cree is astute enough to realize that happy, engaged employees will stay longer.
Staff that is offered the ability to learn, grow and evolve within an organization will become valued members of a team. Cree is all about giving his employees opportunities. He feels it’s important to his business that his servers are all educated about wines. He recognizes that staff longevity is integral to overall success and a positive customer experience. Cree Wine Company is open Wed. – Sun. They are deliberately closed for two days so they can maintain one strong, well-trained staff. This is a conscious business decision to make a better work environment.
Partners in Wine
In August 2022, Kadon Barnwell took over as the new Executive Chef. Cree’s previous Chef left under amicable circumstances and went on to commit more to his other business venture. Chef Barnwell worked with Cree before at Pluckemin Inn. It was while Barnwell was a Junior Chef and Cree the Events Manager, that Cree was able to sample to family dinners Barnwell prepared for the staff. Cree watched as Barnwell’s flavors expanded. He was most impressed with his mastery of spices which may be credited to Barnwell’s multi-cultural influences.
There’s always something happening at Cree Wine Company; another feature that distinguishes them from the other food and beverage providers in the area. Every week there is a special event or a wine tasting or wine dinner. Events have ranged from an evening with one of the artists from the Petrucci Family Collection, to wine classes by country or region. Courses are offered from Wine 101 to Master Classes. There are dinners offered with winemakers and specialty themed tastings like the upcoming one for Thanksgiving. They have broadened the palate to also have classes now for whiskey and spirits. When I asked Cree if he noticed any specific demographic trends, he indicated that he was seeing more groups of women coming in to enjoy a night out together. As a self-confessed “book club type”, I can see the appeal for a group of friends to go out for a relaxing night on the town in a classy environment like this. This place is a natural for live music twice a month also.
There’s a beautiful patio outside and chairs set up on the lawn. I imagine the summer is magical out here. They have spaces to host private events. Baby showers, wedding rehearsals and corporate events are very popular here.
Another feature unique to Cree Wine Company is the revolutionary way they price the bottles that are drunk on site. Most restaurants mark up wines by the bottle 200%-300% and more. They just add $35 to the retail price – making it an incredible value! And every wine offered, whether it’s at a class, in a flight, or by the bottle, can be purchased “to go”, an unprecedented opportunity to taste, learn and “try before you buy.”
A Taste of Heaven
Chris Cree curates all the wines. There are about fifty wines available for tasting by the glass; and about four hundred bottles available for purchase. You can order tastings by flights or by the glass. The “Pairings Plate Menu” has something for everyone. There’s a classical charcuterie and artisanal cheese plate that offers several different choices under each category (meat, cheeses, game). Currently there are eleven different plates to choose from which are as varied as hummus, Korean fried chicken and lamb biryani. There are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free choices clearly indicated. All plates include a wine suggestion. In addition to the daily menu, Chef Barnwell often offers specials that have included ricotta cavatelli with sweetbreads, mushroom ragu, and hazelnut pesto, wild boar chop with pommes lyonnaise, brussel sprouts and almond crust, and a roasted confit leg of duck served on a base of savory chicken liver mousse, with pan roasted cippolini onions, baby white turnips, and hazelnuts.
Wine Is Bottled Poetry
Chris Cree is passionate about wine, that’s a given. But it’s more than that- he’s passionate about sharing his love of wine and food with everyone else. That’s the secret sauce here. He’s a man on a mission. He wants to make wine more approachable, from his staff to his customers. He is firm in his vision that he wants to run a great place to work, not just to dine. Cree’s favorite wine region is Burgundy. This doesn’t surprise me – he loves it because it’s all inclusive. It has world class reds and whites with varying styles. His favorite wine memory is opening a bottle of Bollinger RD Champagne when his daughter was born. He just happened to glance at the date of the bottling. It was the same day his mother was born – the mother his new daughter was just named for! The twinkle in Cree’s eye when he tells this story is almost the same as the one when he talks about falling in love with wine in High School. There is magic in the grapes, in the wine and on full display now at Cree Wine Company. It’s definitely worth a drive in the country to experience all this.