In the early morning hours last Christmas Day, the wine cellar door at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry was pried open with a crowbar. The Napa Valley restaurant has three Michelin stars, a wine list with bottles that cost more than most people’s cars, and an extensive security system that had been conveniently disabled. Even more conveniently, the restaurant had just closed for remodeling and wouldn’t reopen for months, allowing for a leisurely perusal of the cellar’s offerings. Not that the intruders–investigators would determine there were probably more than one–needed much time. They knew exactly what they wanted: 76 bottles of wine worth a collective $300,000. They took a little Dom Pérignon, some cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley estate Screaming Eagle, and 63 bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the most coveted–and expensive–French pinot noirs being made today. DRC, as collectors like to call it, runs as much as $25,000 a bottle. The thieves left without touching anything else. The French Laundry didn’t realize what happened until an employee stopped by the following day.
That night, an hour south, someone also tried, for the second night in a row, to break into Prima, a restaurant and wine store in Walnut Creek, a bedroom community for Oakland and San Francisco commuters. Prima had been targeted twice before. In February 2013, thieves entered its storage room through a skylight and relieved the restaurant of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. They returned a few months later for the restaurant’s DRC, but by then Prima had installed a better alarm system. They dropped through a skylight, set off a motion detector, and ran away, leaving a ladder behind. On Christmas, they failed again–Prima’s alarm went off before they even got in the door.
At first, says Prima co-owner John Rittmaster, “I didn’t know this was a regular thing. I thought it was only happening to us.” But after the second break-in, he started asking around. The Plumed Horse, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Saratoga, one hour south, had also been robbed of tens of thousands of dollars in old Bordeaux and Burgundy. It was a theft so specific that only a wine collector could appreciate it. Redd, an elegant California restaurant just half a mile down the road from the French Laundry, had 24 bottles pilfered from its cellar in January 2014. At Redd, someone had smashed a window and walked right in. “This is not Ocean’s Eleven,” Rittmaster says. “They’re not crawling under laser beams or anything. They’re using sledgehammers and crowbars. But they know what wine they want. This is wine stolen to order.”
The FBI thinks so, too. The agency’s San Francisco bureau has been tracking the crimes for similarities. The thefts usually occur over a holiday, when the targeted restaurant is closed. Only certain types of wine are taken–usually French or Californian, priced at thousands of dollars a bottle. The most commonly stolen wine is DRC. Part of the allure is its scarcity; the French estate makes only a few thousand cases a year and sells them to the U.S. through one importer, Wilson Daniels, which in turn sells only to restaurants and retailers that it considers worthy of the grapes.
The other part of DRC’s allure is that it really is that good. It’s a subtler, velvetier, richer wine than its California counterparts, with a bouquet that unfolds like a flower as it oxidizes. People become overwhelmed when they drink it. One critic compared it to listening to classical music; another once mused that if Ebola ever became airborne and he felt the end was nigh, the last thing he wanted to experience was a bottle of DRC. “It’s poetry. Art. Music. Am I going over the top?” says Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School in New York. “I don’t think there’s any wine in the world that can beat it.”
Melissa Vanek, the FBI investigator working the case, declined to be interviewed for this article; it’s against FBI policy to discuss open investigations. And this case is still open.
A wine theft is notoriously hard to investigate. It’s often compared to an art heist, because once a bottle is stolen it usually makes its way through a series of black market dealers before winding up in somebody’s private collection, where it remains unseen for years. But unlike art, if stolen wine does resurface, it’s difficult to prove what it is or where it came from.
“Diamonds are easier to trace than wine,” says Jason Hernandez, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted one of the largest wine counterfeiting cases in 2013. “Even if you’re looking at something like a 1982 Château Lafite,” he says, referring to what oenophiles consider one of the best wines in the world from one of the best years, “they made 20,000 cases of that wine. How do you tell one bottle from the next?”
The answer is:
You call Maureen Downey.
A few weeks after the French Laundry’s wine went missing, Downey got a call from Vanek asking if she knew where it could be. Downey knew about the break-in, of course–unlike the other restaurants, the French Laundry’s heist had been covered by the national news–and the first thing she told Vanek was that given the amount of attention Keller’s name had brought to the case, the wine wouldn’t be easy to sell unless a buyer had been lined up ahead of time.
Downey was used to talking to the FBI. The agency called whenever it had a wine-related case, usually for information on the industry’s inner workings. She’d helped Vanek on a number of cases over the years, including one a few months earlier against the owner of an online wine auction company who was found guilty of embezzling $500,000 from his clients. “I thought it was going to be an informational interview, them picking my brain,” she says, “but the more we talked about the French Laundry, it became apparent that it might be connected to this series of other thefts.”
Downey trained as a sommelier before becoming a part-time wine fraud investigator. For the past 10 years she has been on a one-woman crusade to rid the wine industry of counterfeit and stolen wine. And there’s a lot of it out there. The French newspaper Sud Ouest estimates that 20 percent of wine sold in the world is either fake or stolen; Wine Spectator puts it at around 5 percent. “How rampant is it? I don’t think anyone knows for sure,” says wine critic Robert Parker. “But it’s pretty easy to make a good fake label and put it on a bottle of really cheap wine. Unless someone like Maureen comes along and identifies it.”
Wine detective is not a full-time job. Downey has served as the expert in several civil trials, including one brought by William Koch, brother to David and Charles, against Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Greenberg, who’d sold Koch counterfeit bottles. Greenberg claims he thought the wine was legit; Koch won $711,000 in damages. For this, Downey charges $500 per hour. Mostly, though, she keeps busy with her boutique wine collecting service, Chai Consulting. She appraises collections and lots for sale, authenticates the provenance of wines, and helps novices start a first-rate cellar.
Downey, 43, grew up in Silicon Valley and didn’t discover wine until college, thanks to a French boyfriend and a tour through Champagne and Burgundy. After graduating from Boston University, she ditched the boyfriend and studied to be a master sommelier, but a sprained ankle kept her from completing the service portion of the final exam. Even so, she moved to New York to be a manager at Tavern on the Green in 1996. It was a swift rise for such a young woman, but Downey was blessed with a quick memory and an unusually sensitive palate that made it possible for her to discern subtleties that other people just didn’t notice. She worked at Lespinasse and Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia, then abandoned restaurants for retail wine in 2000, when she started managing auctions at the New York wine shop Morrell. Her job was to research, catalog, and authenticate all the wine that Morrell bought or sold.
“Maureen came to us right in the beginning, when people were starting to talk about fraud,” says Roberta Morrell, president of Morrell. “She’s tough, she’s smart. There aren’t many women in this industry, but I’m not surprised she’s the one at the top.”
Downey has a round face and blond hair that falls in waves around her shoulders. Her husky voice and a propensity to swear gives her that easygoing, one-of-the-guys attitude exuded by women who’ve grown up with a lot of brothers (she has two). But ask her about one of her fraud cases, and she’ll lean forward, narrow her eyes, and talk with the urgency of someone who feels she’s been wronged. “She’s unflinchingly honest,” Morrell says. With Downey, you get the sense that she’s not solving crimes out of some desire to protect wealthy collectors, but from a deep-seated indignation that someone is cheating and getting away with it.
“One day this fax came in about some wine we were selling at Morrell, this Château Gruaud-Larose 1945,” she says. “This guy was asking all these questions about the wine, like, ‘On the top right corner of the label, are there any markings?’ Then he wanted pictures.” Downey was photographing bottles and making her observations when her boss asked what she was doing. “I said I was taking pictures for a potential buyer, a man named Hardy Rodenstock. He said, ‘Oh. You know they say he’s a counterfeiter.’ ” She’d never heard of wine counterfeiting before.
A German wine collector, Rodenstock made a name for himself in the 1980s by lucking into an astonishing discovery of 18th century wine that he claimed had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. That is, until the wine in one of Jefferson’s bottles was carbon dated to 1962 or later. Bill Koch had bought four Jefferson bottles for $500,000; he won $622,000 in damages from Rodenstock in 2010 in a default judgment (when Rodenstock failed to appear in court). In 1992 a German court also found him liable for selling mislabeled wine. Rodenstock, who has never admitted to any charges against him, is the subject of the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which Matthew McConaughey plans to turn into a movie. “I can kind of credit Hardy Rodenstock for teaching me how to have the eye for fakes,” says Downey. “I started looking at bottles a little differently after that.”
When she did, she noticed inconsistencies. Labels would be printed differently. Bottles would be the wrong color of glass. One day she held a bottle of Petrus, a high-priced Bordeaux, only to find it lighter, and its glass thinner, than other Petrus bottles she’d inspected before. “I didn’t find stuff like that every day. But it happened more often than you’d think,” she says.
Downey developed a knack for nitpicky details found in the information printed on the bottles. French wine is subject to all sorts of laws; bottle sizes must be engraved on the glass, not just printed on the labels, and once a château’s owner dies, the company’s structure changes. “It’s the equivalent of a company going from a sole proprietorship to an LLC,” Downey says. “I started keeping a little binder of what was made when, when laws changed, when châteaus changed, and I’d know–they weren’t yet an LLC.”
She focused on wine fraud as counterfeits flooded the market. Prices were soaring–from 2002 to 2011 the global wine auction market more than quadrupled, driven largely by newly rich wine novices in the U.S. and Asia. “Before wine took off, I used to be able to buy a bottle of Lafite Rothschild for $20,” says Zraly of Windows on the World. “Now you can’t get it for under $2,000.” The image of a crusty oenophile in a smoking jacket swirling a glass of Bordeaux had been replaced by Wall Street types who favored flashy cars and suits and the priciest wine they could find. “With money comes fraud,” says Zraly. “There’s always going to be someone who thinks they can beat the system.”
By 2002, Downey was working at Zachys Wine & Liquor, one of the largest wine auction houses in the world, authenticating bottles at auction. She worked directly with clients–or potential clients–including an Indonesia-born wine collector named Rudy Kurniawan. That year, Kurniawan asked Downey to sell a collection of 1940s and ’50s vintage wines from Pomerol, a small wine-growing region east of Bordeaux, but he couldn’t explain where the wine had come from. Downey told him she couldn’t sell it.
Instead, Kurniawan used other auction houses, most often Acker Merrall & Condit in New York. In 2006 he sold $35 million worth of wine at two Acker auctions. Meanwhile, Downey became increasingly suspicious of his wine and told everyone she could that Kurniawan couldn’t be trusted. “She kept saying fraud was rampant,” says wine critic Parker. “The problem was that these buyers were very successful people, and they didn’t like the idea that they’d been duped.” Last year, Acker sold $62 million in wine at auction. Acker Chief Executive Officer John Kapon didn’t respond to repeated interview requests.
In 2005, Downey, who by then had moved to San Francisco, started Chai Consulting. Today she has six employees and about 40 clients, ranging from the owner of the largest U.S. wholesale grocer to an original Twitter engineer. The company brings in about $90,000 a month.
Downey was several years into her work at Chai when Kurniawan was caught selling counterfeit wine at a 2008 Acker auction. The U.S. Department of Justice started investigating him for fraud and turned to Downey for help. “I needed someone who could tell me the features of what I was looking for with wine,” says Hernandez, the former U.S. attorney who worked the case. “Maureen knows what she’s doing.” When the FBI raided Kurniawan’s house they found empty bottles, corks, and fake wine labels in varying stages of creation. Downey helped Hernandez make sense of what they’d found. “How did this water stain get on a rounded wine label?” she asks. “You can’t cause water to pool on a cylindrical surface. It would have to have happened when the label was flat ... when you were trying to make it look aged.” She taught him what a Cheval Blanc label looks like, when France’s appellation laws were enacted, and how to tell a properly aged bottle from a fake one.
In 2013, Kurniawan was found guilty of counterfeiting wine and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Downey provided expert testimony during the sentencing phase. Before his arrest, Kurniawan sold an estimated $130 million worth of wine, and his bottles, sold and resold, are dispersed all over the world.
“He really cast doubt on the whole fine wine industry,” says Bartholomew Broadbent, son of Michael Broadbent, who spent decades as director of Christie’s wine auctions and had sold several of Kurniawan’s so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles. “People stopped trusting auction houses.” In the years after his arrest, the global auction market shrank as much as 20 percent. But the Kurniawan case might help the FBI figure out who’s stealing San Francisco’s wine.
Stolen to Order?
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
This bottle, which fetches $18,500 or more, is “seamless. ... It is as it were a perfect sphere with a haunting finish that I could taste hours later.”
–Allen Meadows, Burghound
2006 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti St. Vivant
“Sexy, highly perfumed nose offers red fruits, cocoa powder, and earth. Dense and sappy, showing more energy and cut today than the Grands-Echezeaux.”
–Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar
2004 Moët & Chandon Champagne Brut “Dom Pérignon”
For those who found the 2003 “too exuberant,” these $150 bottles of bub “will remain relatively bright and linear” until 2029, offering a “chiseled saline note [to] support the crystalline finish.”
–Antonio Galloni, Vinous Media
2010 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon
“Crushed rocks, graphite, menthol, plums, black cherries and mint all jump from the glass. ... Rain in spring caused a poor set, which lowered yields dramatically, intensifying all of the sensations in the glass.”
–Robert Parker, quoted on Cultwine.com
2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti “La Tâche”
“Finishes with wonderfully broad, ripe tannins ... all the elements are in place to make a monumental bottle.”
In mid-January, less than a month after the French Laundry’s wine went missing, Brian Walker, a lawyer in Greensboro, N.C., called the Napa County Sheriff’s office and told them he had an anonymous client who knew where to find it. According to Walker, his client had purchased the wine from a broker he’d worked with before, only to find out from news articles that it had been stolen from the French Laundry. “I do know how they came to possess the wine,” Walker says. “But I can’t say what that is.” Four deputies flew from Napa to North Carolina and found all but four bottles of the French Laundry’s wine sitting in Walker’s law office. Walker says he doesn’t know what happened to the other four; his client never had them and assumes they’ve already been drunk.
The Napa detectives knew it was French Laundry wine because the restaurant gave them a list of the serial numbers by which each bottle could be identified. In the mid-2000s, as Rodenstock’s trials were under way and people in the wine industry grew suspicious of Kurniawan, some high-end wineries began printing serial numbers and adding other traceable features on their bottles so customers could tell the real stuff from the fake.
Screaming Eagle, for example, uses something called Bubble Tag, or a customized seal that contains a pattern of air bubbles–each one as unique as a fingerprint–that verifies a bottle’s authenticity. DRC goes one step further and requires anyone who sells its wine to track exactly where it goes. “You have to write down the numbers of all the DRC bottles and who bought them,” explains Rob Renteria, the former wine director of Redd, one of the restaurants that was broken into. Other restaurants’ missing wine hasn’t been quite so easily traceable. Prima’s Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles were still packed in cases when they were stolen; even if they’d had serial numbers, no one at the restaurant would have bothered to write them down. But the French Laundry loot could be identified.
Still, San Francisco’s wine mystery is far from solved. Downey says investigators are starting to look beyond the Bay Area to other West Coast thefts done in a similar style (over a holiday, with crude materials). She’s become particularly interested in something that happened more than a year ago in Seattle.
On Thanksgiving Day 2013, two men broke into a Seattle wine warehouse, disabled the motion detectors, spray-painted over its security cameras, and made off with $650,000 worth of wine, more than twice what was taken from the French Laundry. Before they left, one of the men purposefully cut a gas line in hopes of causing an explosion. Thanks to security footage from a camera they hadn’t noticed, the thieves were caught and are serving a collective 14 years in prison. The men weren’t experienced wine sellers. Downey remains focused on who’d agreed to purchase their haul–maybe they’ll be able to explain what’s happening in San Francisco.
In Greensboro, Walker says he has yet to be contacted by the FBI, and until threatened with a lawsuit or criminal charge, his client will remain anonymous. He also declines to say why his client forfeited the wine. “This isn’t a large town. When you come up with a list of people who have a keen interest in wine and then narrow it down to those with enough money to buy this, only a few names come up,” says Greg Brooks, a Greensboro private investigator who’s quietly been trying to figure out the identity of Walker’s client. Brooks says he doesn’t have a client, and that the word around town is that the entire $300,000 lot of stolen wine sold for about $80,000. Downey, meanwhile, is trying to figure out who sold it to the North Carolinian. “So much of this wine has been sold through otherwise reputable sources, and none of them have gotten in trouble,” she says. “But one day that will change.”
Code and animation: Stephanie Davidson
Editor: Brad Wieners