Holding a bottle of 1998 Sassicaia in her left hand, Maureen Downey squints at the iconic Italian label through a large silver-rimmed magnifying glass.
It looks authentic, but is it?
We’re in the chilly Vintage Wine Warehouse in Queens, New York, to find out. Downey, with streaked-blond hair, wearing jeans and flip flops that show off white polka-dotted red toenails, is one of the experts you call if you’re worried your Romanee-Conti, Lafite, or Sassicaia might not be legit.
For more than a decade she’s been on counterfeit high alert, first at three auction houses and now at Chai Consulting, the San Francisco-based wine collection management firm she founded in 2005.
The March 8 FBI arrest, and indictment on May 9 by a federal grand jury in New York, of alleged wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan -- a.k.a. Dr. Conti -- who has sold millions of dollars’ worth of rare wines at auction, have raised fears among collectors about what’s actually in their cellars.
Two weeks ago, French authorities detained four executives of Burgundy negociant Laboure-Roi on suspicion of wine fraud.
“There’s a lot of dubious wine out there,” says Downey, pulling her sleuthing tools from a black bag. “I don’t sugar coat it if I find fakes.”
A New York client recently bought the 1998 Sassicaia and hired Downey to inspect his collection.
She has zeroed in on 11 boxes of wines, including some containing Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Lafite, and pries up wooden case lids with a special hammer.
As she lines up bottles, she lists the most frequently faked labels: Chateau Petrus, 1961 Bordeaux first growths, 1982 Lafite, Chateau Lafleur, Sassicaia, large-format bottles of pre-1985 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Henri Jayer Burgundies.
If any of these comes from a retailer or auction house she doesn’t trust, another red flag goes up, she says.
As I peer at the magnified Sassicaia label, Downey points out details that help her determine whether or not a bottle is probably genuine.
“See the paper grain and the way the print ink is pressed into the paper? That’s good,” she says. “A fake label usually looks flat, with the ink resting on top.”
Downey shines a small flashlight on the raised letters and numbers in the bottom of the bottle, then sketches the markings in her spiral bound notebook.
She slits the side of the capsule with a razor blade, lifting it gently to view cork markings. The 1998 Sassicaia brand looks okay, but she photographs label, cork, and bottle for further research.
“I look for consistency,” she says as she turns to some 1978 Lafite with brownish-tinged labels. “Are all the paper elements on a bottle of a similar age? The combination of a new-looking label with a battered capsule would be suspicious.”
Since one trick used by fraudsters is salting a case of mostly real bottles with a few fakes, she scrutinizes every one.
Ironically, Downey credits alleged wine counterfeiter Hardy Rodenstock, the central character in the bestseller “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” for first getting her to pay attention to obscure details.
“In 2000, I’d just begun working at Morrell’s auction department,” she says. “He kept faxing questions about glue, tiny numbers on the labels, punt marks on magnums of 1945 Gruaud-Larose he wanted to bid on.”
Billionaire William Koch filed a lawsuit against Rodenstock in 2006, alleging wines he sold once belonged to Thomas Jefferson are fakes.
In 2009, Koch sued Rudy Kurniawan, alleging that he, too, had sold fraudulent bottles. The Indonesian national is now in Brooklyn, New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center awaiting trial.
The week before we met, Downey had found some suspicious bottles bought by two clients at sales of Kurniawan’s wines. On her iPad she scrolls through some of the 1,700 photos she took in a New Jersey warehouse, and others she stores for comparison, tapping on an image of a 1945 Mouton Rothschild label.
“The color of the paper, the print, the size of the label, the cork -- nothing is correct,” she says, admitting she’s pleased Kurniawan has been indicted.
“When I first met him in 2001, he was drinking Pahlmeyer’s Napa Valley merlot,” she says. Only a year later, when she joined Zachys auction department, he was offering a consignment of rare 1940s and 1950s Pomerols bottled by a Belgian negociant.
When she asked where he obtained them, he came up with faxes of faxes of receipts in Chinese, so she refused to take the wine.
Many collectors who’ve bought fakes don’t want to admit they’ve been cheated, Downey says.
Not her client James Grandison, a seminary teacher. Right after snapping up a bottle of 1949 Chateau Lafleur for $3,000 at auction, he met Downey at a restaurant for lunch and showed it to her.
She was aghast.
“Before the water was served, she insisted I take it back immediately and she called the auction house,” he recalls.
“They refunded my money.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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