Through his travels in France, Italy, California and beyond, Chris Cree never forgot his Jersey roots.
After years of connecting with wineries, learning the industry, starting his own company and becoming a certified Master of Wine, Cree opened his first restaurant/wine bar this year. Inside the historic Perryville Inn in Hampton, Cree Wine Company offers all kinds of wines from all over the world, with prices ranging from $10-$1,000 a bottle. The wines mainly come from smaller, family-owned domains, inspired by Cree’s visits to regions around the world.
Every weekend, Cree Wine Company offers classes on wine education, with spirits classes on weeknights. In April, the company hosted a Tour de France, introducing guests to a new region and its wines every Sunday.
As the only Master of Wine in New Jersey, Cree knew that one day his experience in the wine industry would lead him to where he is today.
“There was always an idea of trying to make a place where food and wine come together,” he says, “where wine can be less intimidating and people can enjoy it in a comfortable place.”
You’ve been involved with food and wine for over 40 years. What drew you to the industry?
Chris Cree: I have been interested in food since I was a kid. I’d cook with my mom and we’d watch Julia Child on TV. When I got into my teens, wine became a big part of it. I got a job at a liquor store and thought it would just be a way to earn money before going to college, but doors just kept opening in the wine business. I worked there for probably five years and after that got to travel a lot around the world. I made connections with wineries all around the world, from California to Europe.
What does it take to become a Master of Wine?
There was no top business degree for the wine trade, so the institute was created in London to test and certify people in the business. The exam takes place over four days, and the sections include growing grapes, the business of wine, winemaking and blind taste testing, where you have to identify the country, region, method of production, etc. They started holding the courses in the U.S. in 1989, so I went in 1993 and passed in 1996.
Do you have a favorite wine region?
There’s so many! I’d have to say Burgundy is a place I really enjoy. The wines are fantastic and it’s probably the most important place to visit, taste wine and find out what’s going on. I love going to Italy, especially Piedmont and Tuscany. There’s just so many great regions; it’s hard to pick a favorite.
Did you always want to open your own wine bar?
Yeah, it was kind of always in the back of my head. It’s inspired by some of the places I’ve been and my experiences visiting and wine tasting. One example is Robert Sinskey in California, which has a fantastic food and wine experience. It’s a culmination of things I learned and saw and wanted to bring back to NJ so people could experience it.
Cree Wine Company is located in what was the Perryville Inn. What drew you to that historic location?
I always had it in the back of my mind. It’s an 1813 brick farmhouse and inn. I started going to the Perryville Inn many years ago when it was owned by the Pfenninger family. I had a wine store in Clinton, and I would do wine dinners and tastings there. It was full of great memories. It closed in 2012 and reopened as a barbecue place. When the opportunity came up last year, I knew it was the right time to do it.
What does the renovated space look like?
It’s an old building, so it did need a lot of work. I had a fantastic designer, Suzanne Perez, and she pushed me to upscale the place a bit to make it more modern. It’s all very comfortable and welcoming. There’s a bar area, a tasting lounge and a wine studio—which doubles as a private event space. We also do our classes and wine dinners there. We have a small patio that will be open when it gets warmer.
What kind of dishes does the kitchen offer?
I met Chef AJ Sankofa and we immediately clicked. He’s super talented. We call the dishes sharing or pairing plates. We have everything from charcuterie boards, Brussels sprouts, salads, seafood stew, steak—really everything. We have a fantastic dish, Sicilian Fried Chicken, which seems to be everyone’s favorite. We have a wide range of things that change with the season and what we’re featuring. A lot of the dishes are based on regions around the world and are paired with the wines that come from there.
What’s it like opening your own place?
Fantastic. Aside from restoring and bringing back this really old, beautiful building, there’s a lot happening in Hunterdon County. The farm-to-table, cheesemakers, winemakers, cideries; it’s really a vibrant place. I’m just happy to go to work and have a great team who provides a great environment. I’m having fun!