Robby Younes, 36, has perhaps the most unlikely life story in wine you've never heard. Growing up in Beirut, Younes belonged to an elite Lebanese family, living "a luxury life" with chauffeurs and bodyguards. As Younes tells it, his father was a general commanding the country's air force, a man who made grappa on the side, "traveling the world to get the right grapes and the right anise." His grandfather was once the owner of many of the Bekaa Valley's vineyards, though he sold his grapes and focused on making the best ice cream in Lebanon.
But civil war and its aftershocks came to the Middle Eastern country, and his father, mother and brother fled; Robby only learned of it that night, left to live alone in their big house at 17. He was forced to grow up fast, but he acquired grown-up tastes along the way.
After earning a hospitality degree at Lebanon's Notre Dame University, Younes arrived at New York's JFK airport with $300 and his future wife, Diane. His fluency in French and English earned him jobs with Hilton and Starwood properties, where he learned his way around wine. He attracted the attention of Gene Mulvihill, owner of Crystal Springs Resort in northern New Jersey, which had earned a Grand Award from Wine Spectator in 2006 for its Restaurant Latour, Mulvihill's monument to great Bordeaux. Younes took a job there in 2008, where he had the opportunity to taste a century's worth of many Old World benchmarks.
Younes received Mulvihill's blessing to modernize the list and eventually helped open and upgrade several other restaurants around the multi-property resort complex. (Grand Cascades Lodge alone, where Latour and the wine cellar are located, has several floors of dining at different tiers, plus an outdoor, seasonal Chef's Garden.) Now, as both wine director and vice president of hospitality and lodging, he has transformed what was known as an upscale, if not cutting-edge, golf-centric spot with a traditionally fancy dining room into a contemporary culinary destination with 7,200 wine selections—up from the 2,800 it had when it first won the Grand Award. Younes spoke with associate editor Ben O'Donnell about his days spear-fishing in Lebanon, the unexpected wines that most astonish him, and what happens to your palate when drinking 1982 Pichon Lalande becomes like "opening a bottle of water."
Wine Spectator: How did you learn to appreciate fine food and drink in your youth in Lebanon?
Robby Younes: My interest in spirits and wine started at the age of 17 when my father and mother left. I was kind of allowed to drink anything I wanted, because I was by myself. Anything my father left behind him, I started drinking the way he was drinking. Meaning that I would not have a grappa without making the right appetizer. So I'd go to the farmer and get a nice tomato, olive oil, quality salt, and I would have that with the grappa. And my friends used to laugh at me; they used to call me "the old man," because I drank, my pack of cigarettes was always there with the ashtray next to it, with a glass of wine.
I would go spear-dive, and I would grill the fish the way my father grilled it, which is with [parchment] paper. You throw it over charcoal, and it would cook beautifully because it would stay moist. So I started following his lifestyle without knowing that this was the etiquette of the world of fine cuisine.
WS: How did this lead to a career in hospitality in the United States?
RY: I left with exactly $700 in my pocket. I passed through London, and I saw beluga caviar. I purchased it, so I lost $250. So: $450 left in my pocket. And then I saw the best beautiful Iceberg [designer] belt. So I bought that, and I entered JFK with $300.
I worked around the clock. I worked seven days a week in hospitality. My first job in New Jersey was Copeland Restaurant in Morristown. I went nuts and put Krug and Dom Pérignon rosé by the glass. And people told me: You are crazy! Believe it or not, I used to sell six to eight bottles a day. Why? Because I spoke with passion. I was generous with my pouring. I believed in the product, and I sold it like there's no tomorrow.
At Copeland, there was a customer called Gene Mulvihill who came every Thursday. He was persistent and finally made me visit [Crystal Springs]. I walked into this wine cellar: There's room after room, and you're talking Lafleur de Pomerol 1947, some very unique rare vintages. At lunch, I ordered a burger, he ordered a turkey club, and he's like, "What do you want to drink? Let's have a Lafleur 1982." I was like, "This is crazy." I said, "What do you want to do here? People like you with money always say the sky's the limit, but what's your plan?" He was like, "I want to have the biggest wine cellar in the country." I was a crazy man like Gene. And we started.
WS: How did you build the full culinary experience at Crystal Springs, and how have you kept evolving it since Mulvihill's death in 2012?
RY: Well, I do not like golf. So I started taking away [less-essential resources] from this golf-course operation and turning it into food.
I flipped Latour right away. White gloves went out the window. We went from French to nouveau cuisine. This year, we brought back the chef who was briefly here when Latour first opened: Anthony Bucco [recently of The Ryland Inn]. He's an amazing artist.
Every floor of dining needs to be a different level of Latour. I said, "We cannot have a wine cellar at this level, and I'm bringing porcini from South Africa, and I'm serving a burger that's coming from a freezer. That does not make sense." The day I found out a gentleman from New York City was having a burger with foie gras and a good egg and ordered a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti La Tâche 1985 with it, that is the day I said, "I nailed it." So this is the customer we created here at the resort.
Before Gene died, I gave him a promise that I would continue his dream to be the best in the world. I just extended the cellar to two more rooms. I have nine rooms right now. The last room we converted for the wine cellar was the golf simulator.
WS: What is exciting to you now that you've experienced so many of the classics?
RY: I was lucky enough to have that experience with Gene where I tasted—from the early 1890s all the way to now—almost every main producer, every vintage of it. It humbles your mindset. When you drink like that, you don't focus any more on the classics and trophies. You need something different. What's my best wine right now: Gin and tonic, because my palate right now is so into gin. I'm into searching for botanicals around New Jersey. But you know how we are in life: Every year we change our palate. Personally, my palate right now is into funky, which is wine from Jura, a lot of South African wine, Pinotage, which five years ago used to be so heavy to me, because I had more a classic palate. Provence is another one.
There's a wine that came to me, a rosé from Lebanon. I brought in five cases because I know the winemaker: "Oh you're Lebanese, you have to buy from me!" So we buy these five cases and tasted the first bottle: It was horrible, it was acidic, it was all over the place, you could not believe. So I told the sommelier, "Just put it in the wine cellar, one day we'll find a way to get rid of it." I purchased it four years ago. Recently, we're cleaning the wine cellar. So I opened the bottle to drink. I tell you: One of the best rosés I've ever had. I was shocked. I was like, "What the hell happened in the cellar?" This wine changed in color, calmed down, got heavier, had stronger legs, and the taste of it was incredible. So who will say rosé will age, eh? But wines are characters, and each bottle has a different personality. We just need to respect it when we open it, and when it's ready, it's ready for us.