Maureen Downey, the wine detective

Tuesday, 3. April 2018 - 15:30

Maureen Downey is the world’s leading expert on counterfeit wine. After managing top New York restaurants, she joined the wine auction sector where she developed her interest in wine fraud. She has acted as a consultant on several high-profile cases for the US Department of Justice and FBI on their investigation into Rudy Kurniawan, and with billionaire collector Bill Koch in his dispute with Eric Greenberg. She now teaches her patented Chai Authentication and Wine Valuation methods to students across the world. 

How did you get into wine? 
I had a French boyfriend from when I was 16, so I spent a lot of time in France. I studied hospitality at Boston University and did a two-week trip through Burgundy and Champagne. I was also on the university team that won the Windows on the World International Wine Competition. When I graduated, I became a certified sommelier and took the advanced master sommelier exam on crutches at the age of 23. I did so well on the tasting that Fred Dame [President of the Court of Master Sommeliers] told me that I was one of the best natural tasters he had ever seen and the court helped me to get a job managing Tavern on the Green in New York. Then I worked in Lespinasse and Felidia but, unfortunately, living in restaurants, you don’t have much of a life so I figured I’d take the summer off and get a job at a wine retailer so I could have a good discount. I went into Morrell [a top Manhattan store] and they hired me to be manager, which was not what I wanted. I detested retail. So I was moved into the auction department. 

The auction department was where you developed your interest in counterfeit wine? 
I remember in early 2000 reaching to the back of the inspection table in the warehouse to grab a bottle of Pétrus and when I lifted it, it was light and totally wrong. It was cheap Chilean Merlot glass. Then a buyer faxed in questions about some large-format 1945 Gruaud Larose we had on consignment. He wanted photographs and to know things such as how deep was the punt and was there any writing in the bottom left-hand corner of the label. I was taking the photographs when Peter Morrell asked me what I was doing and for whom. When I told him, Peter said: “You know, they say he counterfeits wine.” That’s when I worked out that he was asking all these weird questions to make sure that he wasn’t buying his own counterfeit. That’s when I started noticing all those details on the authentic bottles. When I see that the blue stain should be like this and the pattern should be like that, and the ink should rest like this and this is what the paper should feel like… I have a good memory and can say “that’s not right”.

How did you get involved in the Rudy Kurniawan saga? 
When Christies and Zachys split in 2002, I became the first employee at Zachys Auction, so I set it all up. Rudy phoned and asked: “Can we meet? I want to talk to you now that you’re at Zachys.” When I was at Morrell, he was a young guy who bought California Merlot. We arranged to meet and he was just a different guy. All of a sudden, he was cool. He wasn’t the geeky kid whom I found before. And he really, really wanted to work with Zachys because he was going to be a player.

And you smelled a rat? 
The whole thing rubbed me wrong. I was thinking, I haven’t seen you for eight months and you’re totally reinvented yourself? And he had a posse, people hanging on to him. The whole thing was so weird and I got a bad vibe so I said: “Send me a list and we’ll see what we can do.” He didn’t send me a list, he sent me a case of Le Fleur and Pétrus from the 1950s. I thought, so this young guy’s sent me this case of wine with all these ridiculous old bottles; he never said his father or anyone in his family was a collector. If he had done that, he could have pulled off this scam for a lot longer. I asked him for a receipt. All he had was faxes from China.

Did you share your concerns? 
None of the journalists would say anything because [they] didn’t want the party to end. It was more fun for them not to ask any questions and continue to get the invites. I was freaking out. It was the 2005 consignment [auctioned by Acker Merrall & Condit under the headline “Amazing Grace”] and when Rudy Kurniawan turned up with $34m worth of wine, that really made me freak out. Why was nobody asking about receipts? The first journalist whom I could get to listen to me was Jancis Robinson when I met her in 2006.

Why were so many people so easy to fool?  
People are greedy. They trust the auction houses to have vetted the wine. You’ve also got to remember that wine auctions only became legal in New York at the end of the 1990s.

How much Kurniawan wine is still around now? 
There’s about $550m worth in circulation.

How many bottles do you reckon that is? 
Many, many, many thousands. Here’s the problem: if I have a client with counterfeit wine, [the auctioneer] will give them their money back after they sign an NDA and return the bottles. We know those bottles aren’t being destroyed. If they were, it would be a massive PR boom [for the auctioneer]. But they’re not willing to do that. So the wines end up getting recirculated. They get sold in Asia. They get brokered.

The global wine auction market has shrunk since 2010, from about $400m to around $340m. In China because of the anti-corruption campaigns, it is tougher today to show off with bottles of Lafite than it was five or six years ago. 
But prices continue to rise on a lot of these wines. I’ve found a new source of counterfeit Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in California and in Arizona in the past week. The vast majority of counterfeit wines are not sold in legal channels. They’re being brokered by people who are unlicensed. 

If you’re buying wine from somebody who isn’t licensed, you know you’re running a risk. How many are buying in this way? 
Most don’t know. They don’t ask if vendors have a licence. 

In 2014 you told Decanter that reports that trade was “awash with fakes” were way off the mark. Have you changed your mind?  
The problem has got a lot worse and I’ve been working in Europe and in Asia a lot more. A lot of [the Rudy Kurniawan wine] had already been dumped in Asia in 2008. There were a couple of restaurants that opened in the United States around 2008 to dump counterfeit wine, so a lot got sold. Now, nobody I’ve seen is making old and rare counterfeit wine right now. What they’re making is recent releases. 

You have acknowledged a figure of 20 percent of all the wine being counterfeit. Is that value or volume? 
Probably value, because all the stats we’ve been able to uncover talk about 20 percent in terms of value. That’s not a number that we made up. We found it in a lot of different places and it matches with all other estimates of fine wine or fine luxury goods counterfeit according to Interpol.

But you’re talking about luxury goods. 
I focus on counterfeit wine in the luxury market, but when I talk about 20 percent, we’re talking about all wine — globally.

The OECD published a report in 2016 that gave a figure for all counterfeit products of 2.5 percent. That’s a long way from 20 percent. 
There’s a lot more counterfeit wine out there than people want to believe. We launched Wine on 30 September 2015 and we’ve had close to 300 wine frauds reported about counterfeit and adulterated wine. I’m probably exposed to more than 1,000 bottles of counterfeit wine a year. Month after month, I see reports of counterfeit supermarket wine from the Languedoc in France. Last week it was half a million bottles of counterfeit supermarket Bordeaux. 

Bordeaux produces 500m bottles a year. Half a million counterfeit bottles over two to three years represents less than 0.05 percent of the annual crop.
Counterfeit wine isn’t wine that’s just mislabelled, it’s also [a big, commercial Californian producer] screwing around with his vintage. It’s somebody in France screwing around with the grape variety. It’s somebody screwing around with an AVA. There are many different types of counterfeit wine. Adulteration is counterfeit. Misrepresentation is counterfeit. All these things go into that 20 percent.

Yes. But more than 50 percent of US wine is in the hands of about five companies. So are you saying that companies like Gallo and Constellation are selling fake wine? 
Well, they didn’t mean to, but Gallo [had an issue with mislabelled Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir]…

Yes, but that was one occasion where they were tricked by a French supplier. More than 95 percent of what they sell is not French. 
You’re forgetting a major, major thing. Most of the counterfeit wine that is sold in the world does not fit into any of these statistics because it’s being sold out of a car boot or by a broker selling tens of millions of dollars of wine a year. Sales taxes aren’t paid and there’s no government oversight of it. I have a really hard time with global stats because they don’t take account of the sale of most of the counterfeit wine in the world.

Are people in the US market buying fake Barefoot in huge volumes from car boot sales? 
Not in the United States, but they are in China.

But what’s happening to all of this fake wine? The British, for example, drink 20 or so litres of “real” wine per head. Forget whether tax is paid for on it or not, when and where is this counterfeit wine being drunk? 
I don’t know. For one thing, a lot of the highly tradable counterfeits are not being drunk.

Are you training people to spot fake supermarket wine as well as fine wine? 
We look at all the aspects. I walk people through all the different types of counterfeit. For example, in China, there’s a lot of funny counterfeits where instead of Romanée-Conti, it’s Romany Candy. Or La Tâche in a Bordeaux bottle with a screw cap. All those things count. You know, Penfolds is Penfoyd. Then you have the mislabelling with the wrong AVA or whatever. I say, look, all those things are counterfeit and important, but we’re only going to focus on this little section over here. I can only take a bite out of the issue as I think I can swallow, and for me that’s trying to train people in what I’m good at, which is fine wine — wine that is traded in the secondary market.

Is it fair to say that the producers haven’t done enough to protect consumers? 
That is completely unfair. Going back, it’s always been the producers who have tried to be on top of this. Château d’Yquem, for example, has had anti-fraud holograms since 1988. Château Pétrus has changed its labels slightly every year for decades. The producers who are big enough to be able to have a voice — a lot of their hands are tied because they are now owned by corporate entities that will not allow them to address this. Most producers in Burgundy really can barely afford to employ people to deal with counterfeit issues. DRC still has somebody on staff who retired and came back to do nothing but deal with them. Most of these guys can’t afford that.

You’re now working with Blockchain on a new project. In theory, if you have enough data points on a bottle of wine at the time of its release, and if everybody along the route to market uses the Blockchain, it will be almost impossible to counterfeit a wine. Is that correct? 
A thousand percent. You can take it a step further because Blockchain is being used in farming to prove traceability from dirt to product. So we can avoid problems like we’ve seen happen in France. In Italy, the new DOCG tags have UV and those are expensive. For the same exact amount of money, we can offer this Blockchain security that will prove that that bottle is exactly what it says it is.

Retailers accept that a proportion of their stock is stolen by shoplifters and include that in their costs. Is fakery a big enough problem for most big producers selling wine at under $10.00 to worry about? 
I don’t know. Unfortunately, wine isn’t like fake pharmaceuticals that kill 100,000 a year. People just don’t have much sympathy for buyers of counterfeit wine. They only care about something when it affects them. What people don’t realise is that all these counterfeits do affect them; they raise the price of wine. All of that said, the Blockchain technology we’re looking at is more targeted at fine wine producers than regular producers.

Why is Blockchain better than some form of hologram proof tag? 
You can have a couple of thousand bottles of fake wine that are visually authentic because they have the counterfeit proof tag. Very few people actually do the scan. So the important thing was to find a solution whereby the authentication occurred at the transfer of ownership, because when working in auctions or retail or broker or whatever, every time a wine is sold, it must be authenticated. If you can spend a little bit more and have that done once correctly, that bottle will be authenticated for the rest of its life. I don’t want to have to trust anything other than data.
Interview by Robert Joseph