WEST CAPE MAY – Life is like wine – bitter, sweet, and often unexpected. When Barbara Bray-Wilde, the founder of Willow Creek Winery, set off to California at 18 to study biochemistry, she had no notion that she would found one of the most vibrant wineries in New Jersey.
Barbara has a unique ability to see potential in places that others might overlook. Her first venture in Cape May was the revitalization of the Southern Mansion, which she transformed from a decaying Victorian home into Cape May’s liveliest bed and breakfast.
With eyes wide open for opportunity, her next project imagined a winery where there were once 50 acres of fallow, neglected fields in West Cape May.
“Her bravery has always amazed me,” said Hamilton Wilde, general manager at Willow Creek Winery and Barbara’s only daughter.
“When I was a kid, there was absolutely nothing here. You could look out and see fields of withered soybeans from seasons gone by,” Hamilton said. But like with the Southern Mansion, Barbara could see potential in the place. And with her background in biochemistry and passion for plants, she knew the ingredients it would take to get there.
“There is nothing my mom can’t do when she puts her mind to it,” Hamilton said, gesturing to the massive restaurant and tasting building that is the heart of Willow Creek Winery. The ambiance is impressive – mighty wooden beams, installed by Mennonite craftsmen from Pennsylvania, tower over guests, – but it takes immense work every day of the year for it all to function.
As many as 100 workers put their hearts into the winery on a busy summer day.
“There might be fifteen farmers working out there, starting at the crack of dawn during harvesting season,” Hamilton said. “Not to mention our front-facing team, greeters, wine educators, the grounds team, the gardeners… It takes a tremendous amount of work to keep this place going,” Hamilton said to the Herald on the Friday before Memorial Day, as the business of the summer season began to bubble over.
Barbara and her team planted the first grape vines in 2004, but Willow Creek Winery did not celebrate its grand opening until many years later. “It takes five years before they can grow wine-ready grapes,” Hamilton said. “For those first years, we just let the fruit fall as we prepared the soil.”
The first harvest – a ceremonial occasion – was in 2009. Willow Creek celebrated its grand opening on July 4, 2013. A whole lot changed for the winery in those four years. This was when the first building was built. “Before that, there was a hole in the ground here. My siblings and I used to play in that hole – my brother used it as a paintball arena,” Hamilton remembered.
The first building was massive – Barbara made the decision to build big before a single patron ever stepped foot on the winery grounds. “Build it and they will come. That was her attitude.”
Come they did. Willow Creek Winery was among the first in a wave of vibrant wineries that rooted themselves on the Cape May peninsula. Willow Creek Winery has contributed to an expansion of the traditional tourist season – visitors come throughout the year from all over the world to try the peninsula’s wine and to see the soil that made it all possible.
When the public thinks of the Jersey Shore, they might not think first of wine. But the work Barbara, Hamilton, and her family have put in over the last decade helped to change that.
When Barbara first acquired the historical 50-acre property, it was tired and gasping for air. But her passion, talent, and vision for Willow Creek have made it one of the most-trafficked wineries in the area.
She has worked with her team to bring constant change to their offerings – things are never stagnant at Willow Creek. The winery’s “Dole Whip” drink, which mixes seasonal wines with a fruity, non-dairy soft treat, took social media by storm when it was introduced during the pandemic.
The winery’s desire to bring new things works well, given the weather’s impact on the growing process. Cape May’s dynamic micro-climate supports 13 grape varieties on the farm, each of which comes into prime at different times. This dynamism, coupled with the winery’s small batch production that emphasizes quality over quantity, means that repeated visits to Willow Creek Winery will bear different fruit.
Food options were limited when the winery first opened. The culinary team at the winery has worked over the past decade to present a menu of farm-to-table starters, salads, cheeses, meats, and sandwiches. And as the winery scaled its menu, it has also become a popular event venue for weddings, reunions, and gatherings of all sorts.
Guests from across the globe have noticed the care that goes into the winery, from its detail-oriented gardens to its small batches of local wine. The success of Willow Creek Winery has done a lot to promote wine culture on the peninsula, and that all started with Barbara’s passion for biochemistry when she was a young woman.
“You don’t feel like you’re in New Jersey when you’re here,” Hamilton said. “But it’s called the Garden State for a reason, and when you’re here, you start to see what those reasons are.”
Willow Creek Winery celebrates its 10th anniversary on July 4, 2023. The winery will celebrate the anniversary with two weekends of food and drink specials.
Willow Creek Winery
168 Stevens Street, West Cape May
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