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The Wine Detective: Maureen Downey Reveals Forged Bottles 

Wednesday, Aug 29 2012
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By Photo by Michael Short

On a recent afternoon in her Cow Hollow apartment, Maureen Downey lines up on her dining room table an array of likely forgeries, all procured from clients' personal collections.

The cork on one bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild is perfectly stamped with the first three years of the vintage, "196." The fourth number is a crude etching of a 1, with the faint shadow of a 4 surrounding it. That's important, as a bottle of 1961 is worth nearly five times the 1964. Another cork is similarly switched from 1946 to 1846.

As Downey cycles through the bottles, she talks to them in a low voice. The sophisticated fakes earn her grudging respect. Obvious hack jobs disgust her.

"Sometimes I'm impressed by the ingenuity, and sometimes I'm impressed by the total ... retardedness," she sighs. "I'm just like, dude!"

Some of the labels are clearly pixelated, despite the scarcity of laser printers in 1945. Downey points out brand-new corks jammed into very old bottles, and freshly minted capsules paired with pre-war wines. Often the ullage, or distance between the top of the liquid and the cork, is too short; decades-old wine should evaporate, often to below the bottles' shoulders.

Downey is tightly focused. She squints at labels with a magnifying glass and a flashlight. She slits open capsules with a box cutter. She polishes bottle necks with saliva and Kleenex. ("Nothing cleans dirt off glass like human spit.") She is so absorbed in her work, she doesn't notice her cat throwing up on the rug. When her Marine ex-boyfriend and personal assistant, Slade, arrives with groceries, she sends him back out for batteries without looking up.

Downey points out the use of tea or tobacco to mimic label oxidation, an old forger's trick. She says true oxidation would affect all exposed paper. The mock substances are frequently applied in splotchy little patches on the label, as if the forger wanted to add a little faux-vintage flourish without any sense of the science behind it.

"I am not the smartest kid in the world," she says. "I just pay attention."

Downey, wine consultant by trade, peppers her speech with "awesome," "retarded," and the occasional f-bomb. She recently got into a social media spat with a wine retailer, chiding him for getting "his panties in a bunch" and calling him a "little bitch."

Sometimes she moves too fast, as evidenced by the fresh burns on her arms from a cooking mishap, the broken toe from a recent swimming pool accident, and the smartphone that went flying from her car at 35 mph. Remind her to tell you how she twisted her ankle sledding with "15 really hot Austrian guys" the night before her master sommelier exam, and hobbled through the service component.

Downey may not be the image of gentility often associated with the rarefied world of fine wine collection, but any grade-schooler — and wine detective — knows not to trust appearances. Beneath Downey's brash, sometimes crass exterior lies a razor-sharp professional with a sterling reputation.

And speaking of the package belying the goods, Downey has a specialty: She's one of the world's foremost authorities in sniffing out counterfeit wine. We're not talking about knock-off Camel Lights or Prada purses, factory-produced and targeted to the masses. Downey ferrets out bottles that easily fetch four, five, even six figures on the open market — there's little profit margin in faking Two-Buck Chuck.

Her clients are private collectors, hypnotized by the 60-year-old Burgundy that only saw a 200-bottle vintage. She vets treasure troves that have miraculously turned up, after supposed decades of musty neglect. Wines that, rightfully, seem too good to be true.

French wine producer Laurent Ponsot roiled the wine press when he recently dropped a startling figure: "Eighty percent of pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are fake." And while Downey can't credit that percentage, she does believe "any serious collector" of old and rare wines will have purchased counterfeit vintages in the last 15 years.

Her clientele runs from a wealthy New Englander, whose massive collection had upward of $846,000 in likely forgeries, to a middle-class Berkeley academic whose exposure was limited to two fake bottles.

"The problem is huge, there's no doubt about it," says Marc Lazar, president of St. Louis, Mo.-based wine consultancy Cellar Advisors. "People's confidence in the market has been affected, people's trust in their vendors has been affected, people's understanding of their own experiences — their physical experience of tasting wine — has been affected."

Downey thinks this is ample cause for wine connoisseurs to get good and mad. "I'm always asking people, 'Where is the outrage?'"

It's probably hidden right behind the embarrassment.

On a recent trip to Bordeaux, Berkeley collector James Grandison said one topic came up at every dinner: counterfeiting. "Everybody is talking about it, all the time," says Grandison.

It wasn't always such a hot topic, before well-regarded wine collector and bon vivant Rudy Kurniawan was indicted by a federal grand jury this spring for selling $1.3 million in fakes (a tiny fraction of his suspected haul).

Kurniawan, apparent heir to dubious Indonesian fortunes, exploded onto the scene in the early '00s, backed with deep pockets and a fever for old, rare French wines. He bought heavily and was generous with his treasures, pouring bottles for friends in L.A., New York, and San Francisco.

Serious wine connoisseurship had long borne the imprimatur of a blue-blooded boys' club, but Kurniawan and chums infected the scene with a hyper-masculine, new-money swagger. They called the rarest bottles "heavy lumber" and adopted street names like "Big Boy" and "King Angry," transposing hip-hop affect to their genteel hobby.

Crass stories abound of these Burgundy ballers. Writer Jay McInerney, in his book The Juice, famously quoted tasting notes from one of their events: "tighter than a 14-year-old virgin" and "stinky as the crack of a 90-year-old nun."

t the risk of "sounding like a harpy," U.K.-based wine writer Jancis Robinson says the whole scene was "very male and exhibitionistic. It didn't seem a very wine-loving environment."

About The Author

Jesse Hirsch

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