A slightly shorter version of this article was also published in the Financial Times.
When she wanted hands-on winemaking experience, Maureen Downey deliberately chose South Africa. 'I went and made wine there so I could go swimming with sharks', she told me gleefully on a recent visit to London. Some might say she has spent the last 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 actually 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 pick a fight with 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: "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." '
She, virtually alone in her chosen field, has been rocking the boat in no uncertain manner. There have always been a few bad apples in the fine-wine business but those in it have tended simply to give them a wide berth. But Maureen, the daughter of an early Silicon Valley electrical engineer, oozes security, 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 which helped inspire her to go into the business, first as a manager at Tavern on the Green, then Lespinasse and Felidia in New York. She then started as an auction specialist, with New York wine merchants Morrell & Company, and then 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 to sell négociant-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. 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.'
Rudy Kurniawan is now in a New York jail awaiting sentence (expected soon) after the FBI raided his southern California home and found 19,000 labels of some of the world's rarest wines, a printer as big as a coffee table, dozens of empty ancient bottles awaiting a refill, and even counterfeiting recipes such as those shown below. Downey, who has examined everything the FBI collected, including Rudy's bank statements, reckons he must have sold about $100 million worth of wine between 2002 and 2013. She has a spreadsheet 600 lines long 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 Rudy's entire oeuvre and the picture here is of one of the five, used in the trial and obviously a fake, according to Downey, because two different sorts of wax have been used, both profession and computer printing appear on the label, and the green type is clearly pixellated. (There are other telltale signs apparently.)
I wondered why she had been allowed to access all this. 'Because I was the only one that asked', she told me. 'The prosecutor at Rudy's trial was impressed by my tenacity.' Did you have eye contact with Rudy during the trial, I wondered. '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.'
She has seen loans of up to a million dollars paid into Rudy's account at the New York-based wine merchant and auction house Acker Merrall, where he consigned millions of dollars 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 the two particularly spectacular auctions of the cellar of this supposedly mysterious long-time collector. Acker Merrall, helped considerably by its particularly active 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 litigious billionaire Bill Koch, for whom she gave evidence in March 2013 in another recent trial of a collector whom he believed had sold him fake wine. Protecting the wealthy from buying counterfeit examples of bottles with five-figure price tags is hardly 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 is based in San Francisco but has staff such as Sheri Sauter Morano MW based in North Carolina and ex executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine Siobhan Turner in London. For the first time they are finding not just American newcomers to wine but Europeans who need fine-wine advice. It would seem that this is no longer being handed down the generations as it once was in Europe. And a number of European wine merchants and even auctioneers have been asking for advice on combating wine fraud proactively. Far more than their American counterparts, according to 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 on the planet', she asserts, although she claims she is seeing 'Rudy bottles' surfacing in Europe too. '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 say, "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 experts.'
She has wine expertise and she speaks French, but you don't need that many skills to spot Rudy's mistake on one set of wine labels on which the French word for printed, imprimé, appears as mpriné. Caveat emptor indeed.
How to make fake…
1945 Ch Mouton-Rothschild
50% 1988 Ch Cos d'Estournel
25% 1990 Ch Palmer
25% 2000 California Cabernet
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti burgundy from the 1940s
2006 Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge California Pinot Noir
Pomerol of the 1940s to 1960s
Duckhorn California Merlot 2007
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
Ch 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
Dom de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti, all vintages from 1899 to 2011
Dom de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, all vintages from 1899 to 2011
Dom Henri Jayer, Richebourg and Cros Parantoux 1978, 1985
Dom Comte Georges de Vogüé, Musigny 1945, 1947, 1959, 1962
Plus anything old described as Sélection Nicolas.