Convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan is safely behind bars, but many of his fakes are still floating around in cellars—along with plenty of other suspect bottles.
Just in time, wine consultant Maureen Downey, who helped the FBI bring Kurniawan down, will launch a website in early April to teach fine wine lovers how to spot what’s real and what’s not.
“Winefraud.com will be a resource for everyone wanting to do due diligence on rare wines,” she says. “There’s been nowhere to learn about this stuff before.” The site will provide tutorials on how to spot fraud and a gallery of photographs of the real things to compare against a suspect bottle or label.
How big is the fake wine problem? No one really knows. Downey estimates the value of the counterfeits Kurniawan dumped on the market, from 2002 until his arrest in 2012, at roughly $130 million when he sold them. Add to that hundreds of bottles popping up from the half-dozen additional fraudsters convicted in the past couple of years and players yet to be caught. The number could easily add up to several hundred million dollars.
If you’re a serious collector looking to educate yourself on what to avoid, or if you just want to stay tuned to the latest wine crimes and detection methods, subscribing to Winefraud.com may be worth it. (It won’t be cheap.)
Downey, who got her start as a wine authenticator at three auction houses, founded her wine collector management firm, San Francisco-based Chai Consulting, in 2005.
Over the past decade, she has built an extensive database of photos and information about fake bottles and a gallery of authentic ones for comparison, including every vintage of Château Lafite Rothschild. All of this fills 49,943 computer files.
“You can’t assess authenticity on taste,” she says.
The files also contain photographs of the bottles, labels, and to do lists from the 20 boxes of evidence that the FBI found in Kurniawan’s home and on his computers. (Written on one half-bottle is his recipe for concocting 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild.)
“I noticed a lot of things Rudy got wrong with some wines, like the word château misspelled on a cork,” Downey says. “That’s a marker to watch for.”
The most useful section on the website will be Wine Authentication 101, a virtual tutorial in specific counterfeit practices, with information from print and paper experts. “There will be enough for collectors to see that a particular bottle might be problematic, but not enough to train counterfeiters,” she assures me.
If your thirst for the details of wine crime stories isn’t satiated, a blog by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez will give you the Kurniawan story from the prosecutor’s side.
On the free portion of the site will be a list of merchant members who are committed to fighting fakes and who have been vetted by Downey.
Users will be able to access the site by subscription, with three levels of membership: enthusiasts, collectors, and professionals.
Fees will be “in the “hundreds of dollars,” according to Downey, but that's a lot cheaper than hiring an expert to vet all of your bottles. The collector level includes a professional review of two bottles per year by Downey or Michael Egan, a respected authentication expert, as well as a discount for additional consulting.
The professional level will list insider information for vendors regarding specific bottles that have been officially identified as fakes, in case they pop back up on the market, along with alerts on stolen wines such as those taken from the French Laundry that were later recovered in North Carolina.
As prices of rare wines continue to rise, the payoff for selling fakes is huge—even as Kurniawan provides a cautionary example by serving a 10-year jail term.
Will this website push merchants to check what they’re selling more carefully and help collectors avoid getting conned? I hope so.