Maureen Downey is the foremost global authority on wine fraud, counterfeit wine and fine wine authentication. She has advised the FBI and the US Department of Justice in a number of high-profile counterfeit cases, including that of Rudy Kurniawan. With a degree in Hospitality Administration from Boston University and her sommelier certification in hand, Downey spent five years managing some of New York’s top restaurants including Lespinasse, Felidia and Tavern on the Green. In 2000, Maureen joined auction house Morrell & Company as a fine and rare wine specialist, with subsequent stints at Zachys, and Bonhams & Butterfields. She founded Chai Consulting in 2005, providing wine collection authentication and management services. In 2012, industry magazine Drinks Business named Maureen one of the “Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Wine.”
Learn more about Maureen by reading the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: What was the toughest part of your early days shining a light on fake wine?
Maureen Downey: People not believing me. I started publicly calling out Rudy Kurniawan as a counterfeiter in 2002. By 2003, I was loud about the fact that Eric Greenberg was selling fakes through Acker, and that [owner] John Kapon was aware that he and his firm were selling fake bottles. So, it was a LONG decade until 2012 when Rudy was finally arrested, Bill Koch sued Eric Greenberg for fraud, and I was vindicated.
In that decade, I became a pariah to many collectors and people in the trade—the guys who want to keep making easy money, defrauding their friends and not having anyone shine the light into the darkness of fine wine sales. Sadly, I remain a pariah to many folks for calling attention to wine fraud and wine counterfeiting, especially to retailers who do not like the fact that I educate consumers to ask questions and demand answers, making their jobs more difficult. I had hoped it would get easier, but haters are gonna hate.
KM: Looking back on yourself as a child, is it apparent that you were destined to pursue this type of work?
MD: Considering it is a profession I had to invent for myself, I cannot say there was any indication I would be doing this. When I was very young, I wanted to be Julie McCoy on the Love Boat. That morphed into wanting to run resorts and I decided to study hospitality at Boston University. I began studying wine in my freshman year and got hooked on the topic. So being in the wine industry is a logical conclusion, but the authentication part is something no one could have seen coming!
KM: Did you have mentors? Tell us about them.
MD: Jancis Robinson has been a key mentor to me. Jancis was the only person to believe and support me when I spoke out about the prevalence of fakes. She not only gave me a platform by interviewing me early on, she also importantly encouraged me not to give up when, after so many years, it appeared no one cared. She has been an especially important source of inspiration and encouragement since I first met her in 2006, as has her husband Nick Lander.
Master Sommelier Fred Dame was also an important mentor. I first met Fred when I took the Advanced Master Sommelier exam in 1996, at the age of 23. He suggested I move to New York following that exam and kept on me to stay focused and study wine. It is because of Fred that I left restaurants and got into wine auctions. I owe Fred a lot—as do so many in the U.S. wine industry.
In a bizarre twist, my other mentors would include infamous fraudsters like Mark Hoffman, widely regarded as one of the most accomplished forgers in history. As part of his plea deal, Hoffman sat down with prosecutors and told them everything he did to forge documents. I bought the transcripts—fascinating stuff. I’ve also studied other forgers. Sounds nutty, but it has made my investigative skills much sharper. I do not have anyone who showed me the ropes of bottle authentication. I had to piece wine authentication skills together by meeting with paper, glass and other textile experts and studying packaging and import laws. That’s on top of studying wine, with a concentration in older production methods and norms.
KM: What advice do you have for wine collectors who want to pursue fine or rare wines with the confidence that what they are buying is authentic?
MD: Consumers need to decide if they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. People who are looking for the “best deals” all the time are setting themselves up for a bad experience. Be willing to pay for provable provenance. Getting to know a few vendors and becoming a repeat customer is the best bet. You want your vendor to take care of you, not take advantage of you. You only get that from being in a relationship with a reputable vendor.
• Do not purchase from firms and individuals that have a history of selling fakes.
• Do not buy from Facebook or other social media groups, or non-wine focused online sales and auction sites like eBay and Craig’s List.
• Ask vendors pointed questions about their principles, sources and how they confirm the provenance of wines—and demand answers. Do not accept lame, obtuse answers like “we’ve been sourcing from this guy for years,” or “trust me.” I do not trust, I verify.
KM: Do the exhaustive efforts you put into scrutinizing wine bottles, labels and corks ever put you off simply enjoying wine itself?
MD: Not at all. I can separate the forensic and the enjoyment. I do get angry at the bad merchants who take advantage of people.
“Consumers need to decide if they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. People who are looking for the “best deals” all the time are setting themselves up for a bad experience. Be willing to pay for provable provenance. Getting to know a few vendors and becoming a repeat customer is the best bet.”
KM: What is your favorite thing to drink “off the clock?”
MD: I tend to mix it up, but my main is gin & soda, particularly Japanese gin and Fever Tree soda. I am enamored with Japanese spirits. My friend Doug Keane (chef/owner at Cyrus) introduced me to Japanese whisky a few years ago and I have been in in a deep love affair ever since! In the last year I have gone deep into white Bordeaux and Brunello. However, when I am just looking for a glass of something at the end of the day, I tend to fall back on dry rosé, or Champagne. Champagne is underappreciated in my book.
KM: You’ve studied wine since college—with my good friend Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World Wine School—earning several sommelier and wine educator certifications and diplomas, and co-founded the San Francisco Wine School. Do you miss being involved in that part of the industry?
MD: I love education. I think that is one reason I love to study wine. I love to learn, and one can never conquer wine as a subject; there is always more to learn! I love finding old books that address issues of past vintages and production from long ago. I realize that most of what I study is different than what most wine people study, but I think it allows me to have a unique perspective. I speak to people at wine seminars, restaurant wine education classes, and law enforcement briefings. I know the audiences enjoy it when I weave in fun stories that are unlike the typical “I went to this region and this is what the soil is like” one gets from other presenters. While I miss teaching wine classes more regularly, I do give presentations frequently. I guess the interviews for podcasts, articles, and TV pieces I give regularly help to satiate my educator fix.
KM: What’s the last wine book you’ve read?
MD: I have a fierce library and I use it often for reference, to look up production information, vineyard holdings, and other geeky details. I spend a lot more time with my head in books researching than I do reading them. BUT I do love the new Lafite book, Château Lafite: The Almanac, by Saskia de Rothschild, and of course, In Vino Duplicitas, by Peter Hellman.
KM: If your house were on fire, what would you save?
MD: After we thought our house in Sonoma was gone in the Tubbs fire in 2017, I had to think about this practically, not just theoretically. The answer is simple: pictures. Everyone should have their pictures digitized.
KM: Other than Sour Grapes, the Netflix film in which you appear, what is your favorite wine related movie?
MD: Bottle Shock, and I also love A Good Year.
KM: What is your greatest extravagance, other than some great wine now and then?
MD: I have a few. I like great wine and very nice shoes and handbags. I also travel so much for work that I don’t fly coach.
KM: Which living person do you most admire?
MD: My mother, Kathleen “Kathy” Downey. She is the smartest person I have ever met. She is kind, patient and alongside my dad, gave me and my 2 older brothers a great upbringing. I am the baby and my dad worked a lot when I was a kid. My mom was an awesome support to him, and made us understand that he was working hard so we could have nice things while she also worked full-time running a charity that supports elder care, Peninsula Volunteers. My mom is the aunt that everyone wishes was their mom. She was the “other mom” to our friends growing up. Kathy is a tough critic, a straight shooter, and my best friend.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
MD: I am infatuated with sharks, especially Great White Sharks. I started scuba diving when I was 9 years old with my family in the Caribbean. I worked through the PADI certification process, starting as young as I could—at 13. By the time I was 18, I was a certified rescue diver. Sharks, especially Great Whites and Tiger sharks scared the crap out of me. So, as I tend to “run to trouble” (it’s my motto), I did so with sharks. When I was in South Africa with my mom in 2006, I spent a few days diving with them, and I fell in love. I fell so in love that in order to stay in South Africa longer and continue to dive, I contacted a few wine producers we had visited during the trip and offered my services to work harvest. In 2007 I worked at Muratie Wine Estate in Stellenbosch during the week and went shark diving almost every weekend for 3 months. Most amazing experience—both working in South Africa and getting to know those beauties!