When she wanted hands-on winemaking experience, Maureen Downey chose South Africa. “I went there so I could go swimming with sharks,” she told me when she was in London recently. Some might say she has spent the past few years swimming with the sharks of the fine and rare wine world – except that while she was protected by a cage underwater, in the course of her work trying to sniff out counterfeit bottles, she has suffered bodily harm and intimidatory lawsuits.
It was at La Paulée in New York in April 2013, an annual orgy of expensive cork-pulling, that she was body-slammed by a wine merchant on her way back from the bathroom. By the time she got to the after-party she made sure that her colleague Dylan Peters, a specialist in ju-jitsu as well as fine wine, was at all times stationed between her and one or two individuals who had already threatened her.
I certainly wouldn’t choose to cross her. “What makes me so mad is that there is no doubt that I have been picked on because I’m a woman,” she asserts. Loudly. “There’s this attitude of ‘How dare this non-man be telling us what to do?’ The whole patronising thing is, ‘You little girl, you just don’t understand this man’s world you’re in. Honey, just get back in the kitchen – just go change the ashtrays.’”
Virtually alone in her chosen field, Downey has been rocking the boat in no uncertain manner. While there have always been a few bad apples in the fine wine business, the tendency is to give them a wide berth. But Downey, the daughter of an early Silicon Valley electrical engineer, oozes conviction and indignation.
She must have a bit of wine talent too, because when she was studying hospitality at Boston University her all-female wine-tasting team trounced the competition in an important taste-off that helped inspire her to go into the business, first as a manager at Tavern on the Green, then at Lespinasse and Felidia in New York. After that she started as an auction specialist, first with wine merchants Morrell & Company, then at Zachys.
It was here that she started to question provenance, most notably when an Indonesian in his early twenties called Rudy Kurniawan called up to offer some rare wines for sale. She’d been aware of him on the fringes of the New York and southern California wine scenes and was surprised to find him suddenly offering negociant-bottled Pomerols from the 1940s and 1950s, when only a couple of years previously he had been raving about California Merlot. “That’s just too many steps in too short a time,” she says firmly. “Rudy never claimed to be a wine collector, nor that it was his family’s wine – that would have made sense. I asked him for receipts – it took weeks. Eventually, he sent me a fax of a fax with Chinese writing on it. I never dealt with him as a seller again but others did.”
Kurniawan is now in a New York jail awaiting sentence after the FBI raided his southern Californian home and found 19,000 labels of some of the world’s rarest wines, a printer the size of a coffee table, dozens of empty ancient bottles awaiting refills, and even counterfeiting recipes such as those shown below. Downey, who has examined everything the FBI collected, reckons he must have sold about $100m worth of wine between 2002 and 2013. She has a 600-line spreadsheet of his every combination of wine and label, including, for instance, no fewer than five different versions of the legendary 1945 Romanée-Conti. Her photographer has spent days recording Kurniawan’s entire oeuvre.
I wondered why she had been allowed access to all this. “Because I was the only one that asked,” she replied. “The prosecutor at Rudy’s trial was impressed by my tenacity.”
Did she have eye contact with Kurniawan during the trial? “Oh, yeah.” And? “He’s sad. And he’s just a kid. But you know, as upset as I am by what he did, what I very strongly recognised was that he was not alone. He was portrayed as a major collector by creative writing in auction catalogues. One wine critic was paid to lie about him, to talk up his wines. Rudy was created, and to say anything else is just untrue. I’m almost less angry with him than with the people who literally funded and enabled him and then left him high and dry.
“Am I angry when I look at all this evidence? I’m just so amazed, but I feel bad for him. I think he was used. A lot of people made a lot of money; Rudy Kurniawan wasn’t one of them.”
She has seen loans of up to $1m paid by various wine collectors and others into Kurniawan’s account at Acker Merrall & Condit, the New York wine merchant and auction house where he sold millions of dollars’ worth of wine. At the time he was the toast of the town, hosting wine dinners costing tens of thousands of dollars in top New York restaurants, not least to publicise two auctions that were billed as the cellar of a supposedly mysterious longtime collector. The most dramatic incident was when Burgundian wine producer Laurent Ponsot interrupted one auction by pointing out that a wine his family never made was being offered for sale. It was withdrawn and when questioned about the affair, Kurniawan commented, “It’s burgundy, and sometimes shit happens.” Acker Merrall, helped considerably by its arm in Hong Kong, has risen from modest beginnings to selling more wine than any auctioneer in the world.
It is not surprising that Downey has her adversaries in the fine wine world. She managed to face off one defamation lawsuit after being indemnified by the litigious billionaire Bill Koch, for whom she gave evidence in March 2013, in another trial of a collector whom he believed had sold him fake wine.
“Even to go into debt would have been worth it,” she says now of the threatened lawsuit.
“My parents agreed and would have backed me. I had to go all in. My integrity is worth it. There was no way I was going to retract a correct statement.” Protecting the wealthy from buying counterfeit examples of bottles with five-figure price tags is not going to win her a Nobel Prize, but it is notable that the FBI now has a counterfeit wine division.
Downey’s mainstream business is cellar management. Her company, Chai Consulting, based in San Francisco, is for the first time finding not just US newcomers to wine but Europeans seeking fine wine advice. It would seem that connoisseurship is no longer automatically being handed down the generations as it once was in Europe. “We think there will be more and more people who need help to manage a wine collection. If you want to spend a lot of money on wine, it really makes sense to get qualified advice,” she declares.
But unfortunately, Maureen Downey has been spending less time on advising wine collectors on what to buy, sell and drink and more time armed with the tools of her anti-counterfeit trade – a magnifying glass, torch and attention to every tiny detail of glass, label, foil and cork. She recently flew across the Atlantic to Bordeaux with an aggrieved collector’s lawyer and some questionable bottles to have them inspected at a couple of first-growth châteaux.
It seems as though counterfeit wine is a global problem. “I am finding Rudy’s wines in cellars in London, in stock from Switzerland, all over the place,” she says, “and certainly in Hong Kong.”
As a result, a number of European wine merchants and auctioneers have been asking for advice on combating wine fraud proactively – far more than their US counterparts, says Downey.
She is convinced there is “a ton” of fraudulent wine in Asia. “I’d be more than happy to help them because they have been victimised by this crime more than anyone else,” she asserts, adding, “One of the reasons this was able to happen was because Americans don’t come from a culture of collecting wine. If these extraordinary quantities of rare wines had come up in London, there would have been enough people who’d have said, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen that wine for years.’ I mean, no one has three cases of Latour à Pomerol 1961. But in the US you have these people who have more money than God and they want it now. The internet makes everyone an expert.”
While she does have wine expertise (and speaks French) you don’t need that many skills to spot Kurniawan’s mistake on one set of labels: “imprimé”, the French word for printed, appears as “mpriné”. Caveat emptor indeed.
Most commonly faked wines
Petrus 1945, 1947, 1961, 1982
Ch Lafleur 1947, 1950, 1961, 1990
Ch Latour à Pomerol 1961
Ch Trotanoy 1945, 1947, 1961
Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1945, 1947, 1959, 1961
Ch Latour 1928, 1929, 1959, 1961
Ch Lafite 1959, 1945, 1982
Ch Mouton-Rothschild 1945
Ch d’Yquem ancient vintages, especially 1811
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Romanée-Conti, all vintages from 1899-2011
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, all vintages from 1899-2011
Domaine Henri Jayer, Richebourg and Cros Parantoux 1978, 1985
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Musigny 1945, 1947, 1959, 1962
Plus anything old described as Sélection Nicolas
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Illustration by Ingram Pinn
Photographs: Myrna Suarez