Maureen Downey is feeling vindicated. For more than a decade, the 39-year-old Californian – an expert in wine appraisal – has insisted that dealer Rudy Kurniawan has been passing off wine of questionable origin as pricey bottles from Pétrus and other Pomerol vineyards, and she has taken flak for it.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity on this, with people telling me I’m crazy and I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Downey says.
But her bad vibes have been confirmed: prior to his indictment, made public today, the FBI arrested Kurniawan on March 8, charging the Indonesian national with fraud involving “multiple schemes relating to his wine business, including trying to sell counterfeit wine that, if genuine, would have been worth over $1.3 million.” Kurniawan was also accused of consigning approximately 84 counterfeit bottles of Burgundy to a New York auction house. (The FBI noted that Kurniawan was nicknamed "Dr Conti" by pals and oenophiles, after his affinity for and knowledge of wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.) Since his arrest, Kurniawan has been in jail, after Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez warned of a flight risk.
Some of the buzz on wine blogs and websites has taken the angle that Kurniawan was a lone wolf, but Downey believes he wasn’t. She suspects others of colluding with him and predicts that “there are a lot more people who are going to be taken down in this – thank God.”
Downey has been studying wine for more than half her life – she started when she was 18 – and sniffing out high-end wine fakes for more than a decade. By reputation, she has the ability to spot a fake at 20 paces. She says successful wine sleuths are part-historian and part-obsessive-compulsive. They also have a lot of experience handling fine wine.
“You can’t do what I do unless you’ve picked up hundreds of real samples and looked at millions of dollars of property,” Downey says, recalling a time 12 years ago when she worked at an auction house in New York. She pulled a bottle of Pétrus out of a case and realized instantly that it was a fake. “You know how with some Chilean cabernet, the bottles are of really lightweight glass? Well, I’d pick out a bottle of Pétrus and it would be really light and I’d think, ‘This isn’t right.'”
Downey also studies the "anomalies of production," so that she knows when a particular wine began to be made, and in which years it didn’t make it into bottles at all. In a now-infamous 2008 auction in New York by Acker Merrall and Condit, 22 lots of what was billed as Domaine Ponsot, Burgundy were withdrawn from the sale at the request of producer Laurent Ponsot himself. Some of the wines were from vintages that never happened.
“In Acker Merrall’s catalogue in the Ponsot sale, they had a piece about the fact that Ponsot didn’t domaine bottle until 1934. And yet they had domaine bottlings on the opposite page to that story from well prior to the date," says Downey. Those bottles were consigned by Kurniawan.
In 2002, when Downey was working at auction house Zachys in New York, Kurniawan tried to place a consignment with her. She rejected it.
“A year before, he was buying Pahlmeyer Merlot, and now he shows up with 1940's and ’50s bottles of négociant-bottled, major Pomerol producers. So I said, ‘Where did you buy these?’ and he could only produce some faxed receipts in Chinese. I said no.”
In 2005, Downey started Chai Wine Consulting in San Francisco, a company which among other things, authenticates and values wines. Many of her clients have been duped by fraudsters. One client on the East Coast of America, whom she did not name, has “several hundred thousand dollars of fake wine from a New York merchant.” Downey is trying to help that client “figure out what to do.” She is typically able to get clients their money back, she says, which may take away some of the bitter taste in their mouths.
But she prefers getting involved before clients find themselves with a cellar full of fakes. “My clients don’t know all the stuff they should be looking for,” she explains. “For these guys, this is supposed to be fun. It’s a hobby, a passion. It shouldn’t be a job for them. But it is my job. So let me do my job, and you do yours, and when you’re done, come home and enjoy your passion. You won’t be able to do that if you get taken to the cleaners. That drains a bit of the passion out.”
Sometimes, though, Downey's clients are resistant. Once, a client asked for advice on a bottle he wanted to buy for a dinner. “I looked at pictures of the bottle and said, ‘This is not okay. I’m not okay with that bottle. I strongly advise you not to buy that bottle and I don’t think that bottle is correct.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re just gonna go for it,’ and he did. And after the dinner, I got five emails and they all said that I had told him not to buy the bottle but he bought it anyway, and that it was an absolute fake and ‘we should have listened to you and we’re sorry.'"
“Don’t feel sorry for me – I’m not the one who lost five grand," Downey replied.
High-end wine fraud is rampant, growing, and it affects everyone, says Downey. “I hear there’s more ’82 Pétrus sold in Vegas every year than was ever produced. But it’s wrong to assume that wine fraud affects only the very wealthy. When a retailer gets burned, when there’s an increased risk involved, or they have to make refunds, they pass those expenses on. It’s a lot easier to charge a dollar more on a $9 bottle and sell 10,000 of those than it is to double the price on a $10,000 bottle.”
Maureen Downey’s tips for buying the real thing: