Beware: Wine Fraud Is More Common Than You Think
Maureen Downey is on crutches again. This time the 46-year-old expert in wine investment and authentication was trying to rescue a cat she thought was stranded on a roof, but after securing the feline she missed the top rung of the ladder coming down, shattering her knee bone and severing her ACL. (The cat was fine.) Now she’s recovering from surgery, after months of hobbling through Spain and Portugal and riding through airports in wheelchairs.
“I’m on the road so much,” says Downey, whose primary job is managing private wine collections for wealthy clients around the world, inspecting their bottles for condition as well as authenticity. But she became known outside the fine wine world because of her involvement in the case of Rudy Kurniawan, an international wine counterfeiter who was convicted in 2014, thanks in no small part to Downey’s whistleblowing. Downey started out as an innocent oenophile.
After earning a degree in hospitality from Boston University, she became a certified sommelier and took the advanced sommelier exam at the age of 23. She was on crutches then, too (that accident involved a midnight ski slalom and some cute Austrian boys), and she couldn’t do the pouring part of the exam. But she aced the blind-tasting test.
Very few people believed the problem of wine fraud was as big as it is.
“After the tasting portion of the exam, Fred Dame, who is now a very prominent master sommelier, sat me down and said I had one of the best natural palates he had ever seen and that I was moving to New York or Las Vegas—what was my pick?” she recalls. Wisely, the Silicon Valley native chose New York, and after a few years of managing some high-end restaurants there (Felidia, Lespinasse) and another master sommelier course, she moved into wine auctions, initially for Morrell and then Zachys.
It was in 2002 that she first became suspicious of Kurniawan, who had morphed from a garden variety wine geek who haunted auctions into a major player. “Rudy went from a tricycle to a Bugatti in about four months,” she says. “And that doesn’t happen.” He sent her a case of expensive wine from the Pomerol region of Bordeaux, a mix of Vandermeulen-bottled Château Petrus and Château Lafleur from the 1950s. “Those bottles are very frequently counterfeited,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know how to authenticate them.” When she asked for receipts, Kurniawan faxed her something in Chinese. “It didn’t pass the smell test,” she says.
Maureen Downey speaks to the media outside U.S. Federal Court Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
For the next 10 years, hers was a voice in the wilderness, crying out for investigation of what she saw as Kurniawan’s blatant counterfeiting. “Very few people believed the problem of wine fraud was as big as it is,” she says. Being a woman didn’t help her convince people; the fine wine world is mostly men (she was often asked whose date she was when she worked at auctions), and vendors did not want to mess with the lucrative business they had in recycling counterfeits.
“When we find counterfeit bottles in somebody’s collection, 95 percent of the time the vendors will agree to pay the people back as long as they sign an NDA and return the bottles,” she says. A vintage wine purchased 10 years ago for $3,000 could be worth $30,000 now. “So a vendor will happily agree to take those bottles back and then turn around and resell them” at that markup.
In 2005, Downey started her own company, the San Francisco–based Chai Consulting. “After years of realizing that going after the bad guys isn’t fruitful, that all it was doing was calling attention to me and making my life more difficult, I’ve decided to take a positive approach and educate the good guys and empower consumers to protect themselves against this stuff,” she says.
Aside from curating private cellars, Downey offers two-day seminars in wine fraud and authentication (there’s one in New York in January, another in Hong Kong in February). “I’m basically trying to teach everybody some of the basics of what I know.” She also launched WineFraud.com, a resource for vendors and collectors that allows consumers to do their own sleuthing.
You can get a sense of her methods in Sour Grapes, a 2016 documentary about the Kurniawan scandal. “You’re looking for anomalies,” she says, studying a bottle. “Is it the right glass? Does the cork have the right stamp? Is the cork properly aged? If these things have allegedly been together for the last 60 years, they need to look like it.”
Sour Grapes is a documentary about the Kurniawan scandal.
Mostly, though, she wants collectors to enjoy their wines and feel confident in what they’ve bought. When she worked for auction houses she didn’t always feel that she had her clients’ best interests at heart. She would push people to sell their most expensive bottles, sentiment be damned.
“For me, if you bought that bottle because it was the year that you were married and you want to drink it on your anniversary, keep it!” she says. “Who cares if it’s worth $3,000? That experience is going to be worth more to you than the money, which you aren’t going to notice."
This story appears in the October 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors