The Wine Detective

On a recent afternoon in her Cow Hollow apartment in San Francisco, Maureen Downey lines up on her dining room table an array of likely forgeries, all procured from clients' personal collections.

The cork on one bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild is perfectly stamped with the first three years of the vintage, “196.” The fourth number is a crude etching of a 1, with the faint shadow of a 4 surrounding it. That's important, as a bottle of 1961 is worth nearly five times the 1964. Another cork is similarly switched from 1946 to 1846.

As Downey cycles through the bottles, she talks to them in a low voice. The sophisticated fakes earn her grudging respect. Obvious hack jobs disgust her.

“Sometimes I'm impressed by the ingenuity, and sometimes I'm impressed by the total ... retardedness,” she sighs. “I'm just like, dude!”

Some of the labels are clearly pixelated, despite the scarcity of laser printers in 1945. Downey points out brand-new corks jammed into very old bottles, and freshly minted capsules paired with pre-war wines. Often the ullage, or distance between the top of the liquid and the cork, is too short; decades-old wine should evaporate, often to below the bottles' shoulders.

Downey is tightly focused. She squints at labels with a magnifying glass and a flashlight. She slits open capsules with a box cutter. She polishes bottlenecks with saliva and Kleenex. (“Nothing cleans dirt off glass like human spit.”) She is so absorbed in her work, she doesn't notice her cat throwing up on the rug. When her Marine ex-boyfriend and personal assistant, Slade, arrives with groceries, she sends him back out for batteries without looking up.

Downey points out the use of tea or tobacco to mimic label oxidation, an old forger's trick. She says true oxidation would affect all exposed paper. The mock substances are frequently applied in splotchy patches on the label, as if the forger wanted to add a little faux-vintage flourish without any sense of the science behind it.

“I am not the smartest kid in the world,” she says. “I just pay attention.”

Downey, wine consultant by trade, peppers her speech with “awesome,” “retarded,” and the occasional f-bomb. She recently got into a social media spat with a wine retailer, chiding him for getting “his panties in a bunch” and calling him a “little bitch.”

Sometimes she moves too fast, as evidenced by the fresh burns on her arms from a cooking mishap, the broken toe from a recent swimming pool accident, and the smartphone that went flying from her car at 35 mph. Remind her to tell you how she twisted her ankle sledding with “15 really hot Austrian guys” the night before her master sommelier exam, and hobbled through the service component.

Downey may not be the image of gentility often associated with the rarefied world of fine wine collection, but any grade-schooler — and wine detective — knows not to trust appearances. Beneath Downey's brash, sometimes crass exterior lies a razor-sharp professional with a sterling reputation.

And speaking of the package belying the goods, Downey has a specialty: She's one of the world's foremost authorities in sniffing out counterfeit wine. We're not talking about knock-off Camel Lights or Prada purses, factory-produced and targeted to the masses. Downey ferrets out bottles that easily fetch four, five, even six figures on the open market — there's little profit margin in faking Two-Buck Chuck.

Her clients are private collectors, hypnotized by the 60-year-old Burgundy that only saw a 200-bottle vintage. She vets treasure troves that have miraculously turned up, after supposed decades of musty neglect. Wines that, rightfully, seem too good to be true.

French wine producer Laurent Ponsot roiled the wine press when he recently dropped a startling figure: “80% of pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are fake.” And while Downey can't credit that percentage, she does believe “any serious collector” of old and rare wines will have purchased counterfeit vintages in the last 15 years.

Her clientele runs from a wealthy New Englander, whose massive collection had upward of $846,000 in likely forgeries, to a middle-class Berkeley academic whose exposure was limited to two fake bottles.

“The problem is huge, there's no doubt about it,” says Marc Lazar, president of St. Louis, Mo.-based wine consultancy Cellar Advisors. “People's confidence in the market has been affected, people's trust in their vendors has been affected, people's understanding of their own experiences — their physical experience of tasting wine — has been affected.”

Downey thinks this is ample cause for wine connoisseurs to get good and mad. “I'm always asking people, 'Where is the outrage?'“

It's probably hidden right behind the embarrassment.

* * *

On a recent trip to Bordeaux, Berkeley collector James Grandison said one topic came up at every dinner: counterfeiting. “Everybody is talking about it, all the time,” says Grandison.

It wasn't always such a hot topic, before well-regarded wine collector and bon vivant Rudy Kurniawan was indicted by a federal grand jury this spring for selling $1.3 million in fakes (a tiny fraction of his suspected haul).

Kurniawan, apparent heir to dubious Indonesian fortunes, exploded onto the scene in the early '00s, backed with deep pockets and a fever for old, rare French wines. He bought heavily and was generous with his treasures, pouring bottles for friends in L.A., New York, and San Francisco.

Serious wine connoisseurship had long borne the imprimatur of a blue-blooded boys' club, but Kurniawan and chums infected the scene with a hyper-masculine, new-money swagger. They called the rarest bottles “heavy lumber” and adopted street names like “Big Boy” and “King Angry,” transposing hip-hop affect to their genteel hobby.

Crass stories abound of these Burgundy ballers. Writer Jay McInerney, in his book The Juice, famously quoted tasting notes from one of their events: “tighter than a 14-year-old virgin” and “stinky as the crack of a 90-year-old nun.”

A t the risk of “sounding like a harpy,” U.K.-based wine writer Jancis Robinson says the whole scene was “very male and exhibitionistic. It didn't seem a very wine-loving environment.”

But Downey is not the type to blanch. She grew up with two older brothers, and learned from an early age how to curse, to swap wisecracks. She certainly wasn't enamored with the crudeness of Kurniawan and his cronies, but she could hang: “I'm not going to walk into someone else's party and tell them to change their rules.”

Her issue was with Kurniawan's substance. Wine industry pundits have questioned whether he only started counterfeiting late in his career, when profligate spending habits landed him in serious debt. But Downey pegs him for a career hustler.

She first encountered Kurniawan in 2002, at the start of his ascent. As a senior specialist at Zachys, a high-end auction house in New York, Downey was in charge of vetting wine before each auction. Her job involved writing up each bottle's known history, using whatever knowledge she could gather. For instance, if a batch had been shoddily stored, she would want to inform potential bidders. Buyer beware: possible vinegar afoot.

Kurniawan tried placing a consignment of rare Pomerols from the '40s and '50s with Zachys. These were wines Downey hadn't seen sold for over a decade. It raised the question: How did this 25-year-old punk, who only one year earlier had his “wine epiphany” moment at his father's birthday on Fisherman's Wharf, obtain these precious Bordeaux gems?

Downey was immediately on alert, and she demanded a paper trail. When all he could offer were some sketchy faxed receipts in Chinese, she refused the consignment.

To her, it seemed like a no-brainer. If you're going to peddle some of the world's rarest wines, you better have a solid trail leading to an irreproachable source. But such was not the culture at the time.

Matt Chung, an account advisor at Downey's consulting firm, worked with Downey at Zachys back in ’03. He says everyone is leery now. Auction houses will not sell wine unless they are 100 percent certain of its history. “It was a different climate then,” he said. “If (an auction house) couldn't prove beyond a doubt that wine was fake, they'd just say 'We don't know.' Caveat emptor.”

For Downey, this was lazy and unacceptable, a practice that could tarnish auction houses and muddy the market with illegitimate wine. But from an early stage, she ran into resistance.

In 2004, she was inspecting a warehouse full of wines in advance of a Zachys auction. She came across some “problematic” bottles of 1982 Pétrus, one of the world's most faked wines, and flagged them for removal. A Zachys higher-up named Kevin Swersey balked, vouching for the authenticity himself.

“Kevin told [Zachys' owners] that his knowledge and information was superior to mine, rather than copping to the fact that he didn't know what the fuck he was talking about,” Downey says.

Her objections were overruled, and the wines were sold at auction. But months later, during Zachys' company retreat in the Hamptons, the buyer called her up, furious. When he had opened the bottles at a dinner, the corks read “1981.” Downey was livid.

“I mustered all the tact I had, then threw it out the window,” she recalls. Downey marched into a companywide meeting and went off, publicly shaming Swersey for his error. She was canned the next day.

Swersey is one of many names on Downey's epic shitlist, which is largely populated by the professionals who failed to check Kurniawan's fraud. Her indictments are broad: auction house specialists, journalists, brokers, retailers, proxy bidders. To hear her tell it, an entire industry was complicit.

Grandison, one of Downey's clients, agrees that the message was unpopular, but he also blames a boys' club mentality. “Her personality is so strong, and her opinions were seen as emotional ... they discounted her because she's a woman.”

It's a common trope, the dismissal of a righteous female when her opinions go against the grain. Downey's stern finger-pointing landed her on the buzzkill side of what many would characterize as an epic, years-long party. “Who wants to hear the sky is falling?” asks Greg Gregory, another of Downey's clients.

* * *

Despite the disinterest of the wine world, Downey persevered. And, slowly, she had an effect. Robinson interviewed Downey for a circumspect 2007 Financial Times  article on wine fraud. It was one of the first pieces of journalism to allude to Kurniawan's MO, though it didn't call him out by name. Robinson says Downey's contributions toward opening the dialogue on wine fraud were “invaluable.” Still, Robinson says, “All the participants in these great orgies of wine-drinking must've thought Maureen was kind of a nag.”

Kurniawan's hustle was so effective largely because of how he ingratiated himself to his marks. He threw lavish parties and wine dinners, where he would generously uncork his private stash for wine luminaries and hangers-on alike — including Robert Parker, the grand poobah of wine critics. If you later bought some of Kurniawan's wine, it was a transaction among friends. Get too nosy about where he scored it, and you might lose your invite to the next party.

Chung said Downey convinced him early on that Kurniawan was a fraud. But despite serious misgivings, Chung was seduced by the chance to drink “mythical” wines at a Kurniawan-hosted wine dinner in 2004.

“Rudy opened up this bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc. It was a spectacularly beautiful wine, and I still have no idea if it was authentic,” says Chung. “It didn't really matter, to be honest.”

Downey's client Gregory not only attended Kurniawan's wine dinners, he bought six bottles of fake '61 Pétrus from him. But Gregory still recalls the dinners fondly. “There's something romantic about drinking the best wines on earth,” he muses. “Even if the wine wasn't what it said on the label, I still had a great time.”

Gregory and Chung indicate the difficulty Downey faced in sounding the alarm. It was more fun to let the parties play out, to suppress doubts and convince yourself you were drinking the real McCoy.

Eventually, the damning evidence against Kurniawan couldn't be ignored, and his wines became unwelcome at most domestic auction houses. By the time the Feds swooped in for his arrest, most high-end wine professionals and collectors were hip to his crooked ways.

In Kurniawan's wake was left a lingering shame; not only had so many people been betrayed by a false friend, but so many masterful palates had been duped.

* * *

Grandison, a laid-back theology professor with deep appetites for food and wine, doesn't care about the “heavy lumber.” His wine collection is in the thousands, but they aren't the trophy bottles that make the Kurniawan crowd salivate.

“You can know by looking at my collection that I'm someone who loves to drink wine,” he says. “I'm not some dot-commer or investment banker who's looking to advertise: 'Look, I have Chateau Lafite and Latour and so many magnums of Margaux.'“

But when Grandison and five friends learned they could score a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, arguably one of the best-tasting wines ever produced, they were moths to the flame. The broker was willing to vouch for its pristine provenance, and that was good enough. Like the beginning of a heist movie that you know will end ugly, each friend pitched in $1,000.

The co-buyers were men of some means, but certainly not wealthy; this was a serious splurge for one bottle. They planned months in advance for a grand uncorking at tony Union Square restaurant Masa's.

They knocked back other wines that night, all perfectly respectable vintages, but trifling in the face of the grand finale. Finally, the sommelier poured out the treasured Bordeaux. The men smelled, tasted, and put their glasses down. This was not a '45 Mouton Rothschild.

“I've had other Mouton before,” says Grandison. “It has a terroir, it has a certain expression. This didn't have the right vineyard characteristics: ripeness, concentration, wine that stays on your tongue long after you swallow.”

Rudy Kurniawan, the originator of the bottle, was a name that meant nothing to Grandison at the time. Admittedly naive, he hadn't even conceptualized the possibility of counterfeit wine. But Downey, a chatroom friend of Grandison's, knew all too well. After inspecting the empty bottle, and hearing where it came from, she confirmed his suspicions. As in the post-mortem of Grandison's sham bottle, she only needs to inspect the packaging to assess a wine's veracity. The liquid in the bottle is a murkier proposition.

Downey thinks she's a fine taster, with a discerning palate and a crackerjack ability to recall wines from years before. But could she suss out counterfeit wine based on taste alone? “Oh my God, no,” she says.

In a now-famous New Yorker essay in 2002, dogged populist Calvin Trillin trumpeted a UC Davis study showing that so-called experts couldn't tell the difference between red and white wine in a blind test. Trillin may have just been teasing elite oenophiles (he couldn't prove the study actually happened), but the fact remains: There are enough x factors in wine tasting to dispense with ironclad notions of objective truth. First, the older a wine is, the more exposure it has to external factors that can corrode or at least shift its flavor. The way it's stored and the way it's transported can have hugely transformative effects on the finished product.

Second, our perceptions shift with our environment. A glass of Burgundy that you consume at home, alone, may take on wholly different dimensions when you're at a dinner party with friends. You're distracted, your opinions can be influenced by your companions, and after all, wine is alcoholic. The more you drink on a given evening, the less acute your critical faculties may become.

Third, there's no accounting for taste. Though there is a scientifically proven class of super tasters (Kurniawan has a storied palate), subjectivity will divide even the experts. “Drinking wine is a subjective sensory experience,” says Cellar Advisors' Lazar. “In the absence of ... something objective and purely objective, you can never say for sure who is right.”

Finally — and this is where things get really sticky — the preponderance of fakes has muddled our knowledge of what an original vintage is supposed to taste like. When Robert Parker's tasting notes come from a Kurniawan-hosted wine dinner, even the gold standard has a taint.

“People end up thinking, 'What did I actually drink that time? That was my reference standard for Wine XYZ — was it real? What did I taste?' It's an existential thing,'“ Lazar says.

Unreliable palates aside, uncorking a bottle destroys its worth. Once you pop that '29 Chateau d'Yquem, there's no recouping any potential losses. It's too late to claim trickery, to feebly protest that the flavor was off. Sorry, sucker.

Better, then, to rely on the bottle. Devilish inconsistencies in cork, capsule, label, and glass can manifest themselves before the precious (or not-so-precious) liquid has been aerated.

Downey first started noticing bottle inconsistencies in 2000, when she was working for New York auction house Morell & Co. She got a fax from a German named Hardy Rodenstock, who barraged her with questions on some old magnums of Chateau Gruaud-Larose in their catalog.

His questions were highly specific, asking about packaging esoterica like tiny markings on the punt (the indentation at the bottom of the bottle) and glue stains on the label's lefthand corner. These were not inquiries Downey typically fielded; at first she just pegged him as an eccentric.

But she soon learned Rodenstock was a notorious counterfeiter among European wine insiders, though not as well-known in the States. Perhaps you've heard about American industrialist Bill Koch's purchase of Thomas Jefferson's 18th century Laffites? That was Rodenstock's ballsy sham.

Downey figured out why he was faxing her so many questions: Rodenstock was a fan of Gruaud-Larose, and wanted Morell's stash to drink himself. He wanted to make sure he wasn't buying back his own fakes.

Downey's interest in counterfeits was furthered by an incident in Morell's warehouse. She was inventorying a consignment of wines, lining things up on a table, when she lifted a bottle of '61 Pétrus. Instead of the weighty glass endemic to a Bordeaux from that time period, the bottle was extremely light, “like a Chilean Cabernet.”

These two incidents set her on the path of self-education. Downey sought instruction from an acquaintance who worked in old document restoration, learning about printing techniques and oxidation rates, but largely she was on her own. Such a small pool of people work in wine authentication, mentors didn't stand at the ready.

It's her good fortune that so many forgeries had been inexpertly produced, with telltale signs that don't require a Secret Service background. Downey's tools are fairly rudimentary: a jeweler's loupe, a flashlight, a magnifying glass, a box cutter, and of course, Kleenex and saliva.

And what may be her greatest tool is simple, high-resolution digital photography. She maintains a voluminous photo database on her hard drive, replete with real and fake bottles. While you might imagine a high-level wine counterfeiter to possess the meticulousness and flair of an art forger, pirated DVD covers have more artistry than some of these fakes.

To be fair, Downey says Kurniawan's technique advanced over time, and that he eventually got “damn good.” For instance, he developed a method of forging the year stamp on corks that looks pretty close to authentic. She has no doubt that some of his late-model works could evade detection.

But what of the many years Kurniawan was allowed to flourish unchecked, passing off crude knockoffs with impunity? And how about his predecessor Rodenstock, whose fakes she still encounters to this day?

Downey recently discovered $400,000 worth of “absolutely retarded” fakes, bearing Rodenstock's signature sloppiness. This included 12 bottles of 1950 Pétrus that at least should have been consistent. There were 4 different cork lengths and 3 types of capsules. Some bottles were short and green, others were tall and brown, still others were blue. The ink on the labels was black, though Pétrus only worked in green. “Sometimes I'm like, 'C'mon, dude, are you even trying?'“

* * *

In 2006 Downey started Chai (the French word for “wine storehouse,” pronounced shay) Consulting, an operation that's grown modestly but steadily. She now has four full-time employees and turns a profit of “several hundred thousand” a year.

Sniffing out frauds is one of many services offered by Chai, a company that advertises its “inventory organization and management, fine and rare wine appraisal, authentication, valuation, investment and financial trends of global fine wine markets.” Though it's easy to peg her as a wine detective, Downey protests that much of her work is more like housekeeping.

Some of her clients just buy and buy and buy, and she's called in to trim collections that have grown bloated and unwieldy. Gregory, formerly a successful roofing distributor, was at 18,000 bottles a few years back, with a value of about $2.5 million. With Downey's help, he's cut it down to a tidy 2,000.

She's also helped Grandison cull his modest collection, giving him capital to fund some home improvement projects. He credits Downey for making the tough calls he is unwilling to. “She's all up in my biscuits,” he laments with a smile.

Downey also has a lot of experience with divorce, as wine collections are commonly divvied up in court proceedings. Chai gets called in to help ex-wives navigate, organize, and sell off their treasure. Of course, counterfeiting can dog even these less glamorous duties. Downey recently prepared a report for a divorcee who inherited some fakes from her ex. The report detailed how many duds were in the mix, ammunition to leverage more funds in court.

But what of collectors who don't traffic in old and rare French wines? After Kurniawan's arrest, Downey said she gets daily calls from small-timers who think they need authentication services.

“People keep asking me to check out their collections and make sure everything is legit,” she says. “I'll cut them off right away; I'm not going to waste their money authenticating a collection of $50-and-under Kenwoods.”

Some have accused Downey of being an alarmist, using scare tactics to drum up business in online forums. Lazar, for one, took umbrage with the “breathlessness” of her posts on the site WineBerserkers.com.

“I'm not taking any argument with her expertise, but I stand behind that statement,” he says. “It's, 'Oh my God, the sky is falling! You must hire me today to authenticate your entire cellar!'“

Downey counters that WineBerserkers commenters are not her target clientele; she's simply excited that people finally want to hear her opinions on wine fraud.

“Take anything you've ever been passionate about in your life, but it's been so in the closet,” she says. “Finally people are talking about it. It's awesome.”

Kurniawan's arrest has clearly been a boon for Downey. Not only has it vindicated years of feeling like a pariah, she has also obtained some residual glam along the way. Inside Edition  recently engaged her to run a sting operation on a New York wine retailer (she got hair and makeup alongside a Playboy model). Crime Inc.  just interviewed her for a segment on counterfeits. Bloomberg News tagged along on an inspection she performed in a warehouse in Queens. She's mugging for the part of gallant detective, flushing out villainy wherever it emerges.

While the media may be painting in broad strokes, there is clearly some truth to the rendering. For instance, on a recent review of a New England client's cellar, she stumbled onto some unanticipated treachery. A storage facility had secretly sold $1.3 million of the client's wines to cover operating expenses; Downey was tasked with tracking down its whereabouts.

At this point, she isn't all that surprised. “I'm surrounded by crooks!” she exclaims.

* * *

In 1985, a different sort of scandal rocked the wine world, when diethylene glycol (a chemical cousin of antifreeze) was found to be adulterating mass quantities of Austrian wine. Today, Austria exports some of the most heavily regulated wine in the world, and arguably some of the most delicious.

Many industry insiders hope that the Kurniawan scandal will have a similar transformative effect on sales of old and rare French wine.

“I sincerely hope the consequences are that the auctioneers and those selling fine wine move towards getting far more information,” says wine writer Robinson. Though, she adds, “It's almost criminal how little [vetting] they still do, unless it's demanded by the public.”

But many say the wine-buying public is becoming increasingly vocal, and scrutinous. Gone are the days of big-league collectors having purchases delivered to off-site facilities, and left uninspected for years.

“Now these guys are saying 'I want to see it' or 'I want to do an audit,'“ says Lazar. “It's like, if your next-door neighbor got broken into, you'd go check and make sure your basement window was locked.”

Some feared the specter of fraud would chill sales, but according to Peter Meltzer, wine auction correspondent for Wine Spectator, old and rare sales have actually been more robust since Kurniawan's indictment. Meltzer cites recent top-shelf auctions as proof, including one at Sothebys in April, which exceeded pre-sale estimates by $1 million. An authenticated bottle of 1892 Chateau d'Yquem, valued at $4,000 to $6,000, ended up selling for $55,000.

“People aren't going to stop buying fine and rare wine, just like last year's revelations about fake Willem de Koonings and Motherwells haven't exactly roiled the art market,” Meltzer observes.

For her part, Downey is tickled burgundy with how everything has turned out. She's still finding remnants of Kurniawan's work, but that's bound to peter out eventually. And Rodenstock's shoddy fakes aren't likely to fool an increasingly vigilant consumer class.

There is some concern that the counterfeiting problem will just spread to new global markets, where news of the recent scandal may not be as well-publicized. Robinson points out that Kurniawan used similar methods in the U.S. that Rodenstock had used for years in Europe. “These guys have provided a good recipe for how someone else could pull this off in Moscow, or Buenos Aires,” she said.

But Downey believes the world is too small for that now, with information disseminated too quickly. She points to her recent Bloomberg profile, which made it to the front of the Buenos Aires Herald.

“As the conversation becomes louder, more people hear about it in different places, and the community becomes smaller,” she says.

Downey never had much of an issue raising her voice. Now she's just got more company. ¥¥

(This story first appeared in the SF Weekly and is reprinted here with  the permission of the author.)

One Response to "The Wine Detective"

  1. wineguy   September 8, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Rich foolish obsessive people with too much money stashing wine as an ‘investment’, sheesh….’fruit of the vine and works of human hands’ is meant to drink and enjoy not to hoard, this is not stamp collecing it is fermented grape juice!

    Reply

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