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The Decanter interview: Maureen Downey

Relying only on instinct, self-taught skills and the most rudimentary tools of authentication, she could be fine wine’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. And, following a high-profile conviction, she is in big demand. John Stimpfig reports...

More than a decade has passed since Maureen Downey raised the alarm on Rudy Kurniawan. At the time, though, almost no one was listening to her. ‘For years, it felt like I was screaming in an empty room,’ she says. Now, in light of Kurniawan’s conviction late last year in New York, everyone in the fine-wine world is hanging on her every word.

As the world’s foremost expert on counterfeit wines, Downey is in big demand. When I caught up with her in London, she had just come off the stage at an industry conference, where she had been talking about her pioneering work in wine authentication. Only the week before, she was a keynote speaker at a similar event in Hong Kong. How bad is the current situation? ‘Reports that the trade is awash with fakes are way off the mark,’ she reassures. ‘It’s nothing like 20%, which has been suggested. In my experience, only 150 wines are really affected. So I don’t worry about every single bottling of Pétrus and Cheval Blanc. But I do worry about certain vintages and formats. Overall, there has been a panic out there which wasn’t entirely warranted.’

Equally, she doesn’t want to downplay the damage done by Kurniawan. ‘The fact is that from 2002, Rudy was selling as much as $1 million worth of wine each year up to his arrest. And we’ve no idea how much of that was fake. But clearly, a lot of it was. When the FBI arrested him, they also confiscated 19,000 labels.’

According to Downey, one of the key things that emerged from the court case wasn’t just the scale of Kurniawan’s activity, but the number of people who were privately funding him. Downey is therefore delighted by Kurniawan’s high-profile conviction – the first in the US for wine fraud. But she is even more frustrated that police and FBI inquiries haven’t yet delved deeper into the roles played by his accomplices. ‘It is abundantly clear from the courtroom evidence who backed Rudy and who benefited. Their names are there and they should be prosecuted and put out of business.’

‘What is so unfortunate is the way in which this whole debacle has done enormous collateral damage to collector confidence,’ she adds. Downey also deeply resents the harm it has unfairly wreaked on the auction market. ‘I’m continually asked if I think the auction houses will do a better job now. But, in fact, this is old news to them because the reputable ones have already tightened up their vetting procedures. It is more of a wake-up call to the retail and broker worlds that seem to believe that fraud is only an auction issue. Other than the most egregious sellers of Rudy’s fakes, auction houses today are a safer bet than most retailers and brokers.’

Above: a court artist’s sketch from the trial of Rudy Kurniawan (seated far right), where assistant US attorney Joseph Facciponte (standing) shows the jury a fake jeroboam. Right top and bottom: evidence presented to the court included stamps and labels of famous estates found in Kurniawan’s home

Rise of a fraud fighter

Downey didn’t begin her wine career as a sleuth. In fact, she trained and worked as a sommelier and restaurant manager in New York at Lespinasse and the Tavern on the Green before joining Morrell as an auction specialist. It was there that she first came across the now disgraced German wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock, responsible for the infamous ‘Jefferson’ bottles; an experience that helped Downey hone her self-taught skills in wine authentication over some ‘unusual’ examples of Gruaud-Larose, in which Rodenstock had displayed a suspicious amount of interest.

‘More than anything else, that was what first turned me into an anti-fraud freak,’ she says. Then, in 2002, she joined Zachys’ auction department to establish its operating procedures and standards. So when a fresh-faced, Indonesian collector called Rudy Kurniawan tried to consign some bottles of very rare and valuable Pomerols from the 1950s and ’60s, Downey’s antennae immediately started to twitch. ‘I asked him where he’d got them from. But he could only come up with some faxed receipts in Chinese.’ Downey rejected them.

Staying true

She recalls: ‘At the time, everybody said I was crazy because they all thought Rudy was this great guy. However, I just knew that something was wrong, which is why I never accepted a single bottle from him. It just didn’t add up. For instance, only a year before he was buying Pahlmeyer Merlot, and now he had these incredibly rare wines, including three cases of 1961 Latour à Pomerol. I don’t think I am the smartest kid in the room, but the difference was that I had my eyes open and was honest.’

For several years, Downey’s outspoken and uncompromising stand on Kurniawan cost her. She ended up on the receiving end of false accusations and personal abuse from several former friends and colleagues in New York. ‘I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity on this,’ she admits ruefully. It would have been a lot easier to keep quiet and go with the flow. But that’s not the way she does things. Integrity and independence and are Downey’s calling cards.

So Downey stood her ground, buried herself in her work and just got on with the job. In 2005, she quit the auction world to go to solo, setting up Chai Consulting in San Francisco. As collector concerns over fine wine fraud grew, so too did Downey’s fledgling business. One of the services that she pioneered is the recently trademarked ‘Chai Method’, a new, benchmark approach to provenance and authentication. As with most things, the perfectionist Downey simply set the bar higher than anyone else.

Today her global team of associates includes Sheri Sauter Morano MW and Siobhan Turner, the former executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. Most of Chai’s work remains in the US, but it is eyeing up the collector markets of Asia and Europe. And business is good. Very good.

The real deal

Almost inevitably, Chai tends to attract a particular type of client. ‘A lot of people do come to us for authentication because they want to know that what they’re drinking is the genuine item,’ says Downey. That’s just as well because she doesn’t ‘sugar coat it’ if she finds counterfeits. ‘Often a client has no idea and I take one look and go, “Uh-oh, bad news.”’ But Downey has noticed another common trait among her customers. ‘They’re personally willing and confident enough to go after the bad guys who supplied those fakes.’

She cites a recent client who asked her to look at his collection, from which she picked out 40 ‘potentially problematic’ bottles. Downey had them professionally photographed before forensically inspecting the glass, label, cork and capsule of each. The tools of her trade are surprisingly basic: a magnifying glass, jeweller’s loupe, torch, box cutters and Kleenex. ‘It’s slow, labour-intensive work. I can only really process about 30 bottles a day,’ she says. In the end, Downey concluded that only three wines were genuine. The other 37 had cost $2.4 million from a London retailer, which shortly received Downey’s discreet and comprehensive report. ‘That’s how my client gets his money back. Every vendor we’ve sent a report to, saying our client was robbed, has paid up.’

Over the years, Downey has scrutinised thousands and thousands of bottles of wine. ‘I do find it interesting to see all the different methods used by counterfeiters like Kurniawan,’ she says. ‘Rudy actually got quite good, especially on corks. But he also made some basic errors, which obviously caused his downfall.’

Some fakes are easier to spot than others: ‘When St Peter begins to look like Osama bin Laden on a bottle of Pétrus, you know it’s not the real McCoy. But others are so good that even the producers cannot make 100% statements about authenticity. This is not an exact science.’

Surprisingly, authenticating wine is only a small part of what Chai does. ‘It’s probably about 10%,’ says Downey. ‘We do it because there’s a demand for it; it’s something I feel extremely strongly about, and naturally we want to help people. And I guess it does appeal to the OCD side of my personality.’

In fact, what gives her the most professional pleasure is helping people get the most out of their wine collections: ‘A lot of people also come to us because their wine passion has turned into a problem. Sometimes, a client has cases of wine spilling down the hall and his wife is ready to walk out. So I come in and create order out of chaos by putting the guy back in control of his cellar. That’s what gives me the biggest buzz of all.’

Nevertheless, her extraordinary reputation has largely been made on the back of her unique expertise in sniffing out fakes, and her forthright stand on Kurniawan. ‘Even now, I am amazed how Rudy got away with it for so long. But it’s not over yet.’ She fervently hopes that more indictments will follow because ‘this was organised crime and we need to root it out wherever it happens’.

Downey is under no illusions about the task ahead: ‘Unfortunately, wine fraud is nothing new and it won’t be easy. However, I absolutely think we are beginning to clean up the current situation because there’s a much greater level of vigilance than ever before. At long last, the tide is definitely turning in the direction of the good guys.’

Downey at a glance
Born: 1972
Education: Boston University (hospitality administration)
1994-2000: Fine dining restaurant manager at Tavern on the Green, Lespinasse and Felidia in New York
2000-2005: Senior auction specialist at Morrell, Zachys and Bonhams & Butterfield
2005 to present: Owner and managing member of Chai Consulting in San Francisco
Hobbies and passions: Skiing, diving with Great White sharks, animal rights

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