Wine Master Chris Cree Celebrates His Vintage Journey

Chris Cree
Photo courtesy of Kelly Vanasse

The writer was served complimentary tasting platters during the interview.

When Chris Cree raises his wine glass and says, “Cheers,” it’s more than just a friendly social tradition. That endearing salutation reflects his many years of study and training to achieve the international distinction of being New Jersey’s sole Master of Wine. In fact, he’s one of only 56 people in the United States and 418 worldwide to have earned the title.

Historic Structure

He’ll soon be raising his wine glass with family, friends, business associates, and a growing clientele to toast the formal grand opening of Cree Wine Company at the historic 19th-century New Jersey inn, previously known as the Perryville Tavern. The restaurant opened its doors to the public beginning in early December 2021. Cree and his staff are planning special festivities in the weeks ahead to celebrate the launch of the business.

Vintage Still Life
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Bottone

Cree earned his Master of Wine degree in 1996 from the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine, based in London. Achieving the honor involves a rigorous exam and “blind” tasting test to identify the country, region, vintage, wine vessel and vineyard soil composition for an assortment of wines. Other requirements include a written dissertation, a comprehensive understanding of the practical and theoretical aspects of a vineyard and wine-growing traditions, as well as demonstrating a full grasp of the international business of wine (importing, selling and shipping).

 A Look Back

Raised in Hunterdon County, Cree began his pilgrimage into the wine business as a teenager with a part-time job at Central Liquors in Flemington, working his way up to a sales manager position. He recalled being fascinated with the intricacies and global dynamics of the wine making. He traveled the world and absorbed the nuances of business, which eventually led to his 1996 degree.

Cree soon became an in-demand wine consultant and operated a wine business in Clinton during the 1990s. In the summer of 2020, a business associate—Jim Petrucci, a commercial real estate developer—approached Cree on the idea of establishing a business at the Perryville Tavern, a handsome brick building that dates back to 1813.

Cree Wine Comes Together

They developed a business plan and selected A.J. Sankofa as head chef. Pairing fine wine with gourmet tasting platters is the vibe at Cree Wine. Sankofa’s journey to establish himself as an accomplished chef began in 2014 at Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen, in Morristown. Enthralled with the fast pace of the restaurant business, he educated himself on the science and traditions of food preparation, citing Kevin Sippel, the executive chef at Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen, as his faithful mentor.

A.J. Sankofa and Chris Cree
Head Chef A.J. Sankofa (left) and Chris Cree

Like Sippel, Sankofa studied at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. He learned Italian and studied the food culture while working at a winery in northern Italy and a restaurant in Alba. He traveled between the United States and Italy several times and worked at The Buffalo Club in Buffalo, NY, and Legacy Records Restaurant, in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.

In the summer of 2021, a mutual friend, Mitch Wolff, introduced Cree and Sankofa to one another. Wolff accurately envisioned a successful chemistry between the two connoisseurs. Along the way Sankofa mixed food and romance; Khristina Gambarian is his fiancé and his talented sous chef. Along with his work at Cree, Sankofa is the founder and owner of ESO Artisanal Pasta, in Morristown. (Jersey Bites wrote about ESO last summer—you can find the article here.)

Brussel sprouts and red cabbage
Brussels sprouts and red cabbage

The Cree Wine Experience

Interviewing Sankofa and Cree on a Thursday night in early January, this reporter enjoyed six courses of dazzling, delicious tasting platters pared with glasses of exquisite wine. The selections, in order, were: Ettore Germano Rosanna Extra Brut Rose (2010) pared with fried brussels sprouts and red cabbage; the same wine pared with Sicilian fried chicken; Danilo Thomain Enfer d’Arvier (2019) paired with gnocchi di ricotta and duck confit; Louis Claude Desvignes Morgon Cote du Py Javernieres (2020) paired with New York strip steak, confit parsnip and roasted fingerlings; Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey Initiale paired with cheesecake and berry compote; and Emmanuel Camut Ambrosia Pommeau paired with a flight of salted caramel, apple pie, and Nutella ice creams. It was an absolutely sensational culinary and wine presentation.

Cree's Sicilian fried chicken
Sicilian fried chicken

Historic Location

The grand brick structure, just a stone’s throw from Route 78, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant’s cozy, relaxed décor features warm earth tones set against the backdrop of the Hunterdon County woods.

cozy interior

The seasonal menu will include appetizers and charcuterie. And along with wine, Cree offers an extensive selection of spirits.

Going forward, Cree Wine plans to develop patio areas to accommodate outdoor events and receptions. Upstairs rooms are ideal for private corporate events and family parties. In addition, keep an eye out for wine-tasting classes and special dinners with guest chefs throughout the year. 

Illuminated spirits

Smiling and sipping a glass of wine, Chris Cree said launching Cree Wine represents the culmination his accomplishments thus far. His wine education is ongoing as twice a year he visits Italy and France. He will take part in the 54th annual “VinItaly International” trade show and exhibition, scheduled for April 10 to 13, in Verona, Italy.

Cree Wine Company
167 Perryville Rd.
Hampton, NJ 08827