"Wine detective” Maureen Downey came to the Simple Congress in 2019 and told SWN about the Rudy Kurniawan case she was working on. Rudy K, as Downey calls him, was released from prison last winter and deported from the US. Anna Kukulina talked to Maureen about the situation with counterfeits on the rare wine market in 2021, and whether buyers have new ways to protect themselves.
Evgeny Kotelevsky – translator
Thomas Anthony – editor
As one of the top experts in counterfeit wines, how do you estimate the size of the market for counterfeit wines, as a percentage of the market for real ones?
The estimates are similar for all luxury goods: 20%. It seems the more that we look at the issue, the more counterfeit wine is being discovered at all price points – so I have no reason to think wine is any less faked. In fact, the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP)* asserts that 30% of all alcohol consumed is fraudulent, so the 20% figure may even be a conservative number.
Is there a "fashion" for counterfeiting? Recently, a factory of fake Sassicaia was discovered, and several boxes of fake Penfolds wine were caught in China – can we say that there is a trend now of counterfeiting such wines, or was this a coincidence?
The current trends we are seeing involve the counterfeiting of current or recently-released vintages. Infamous counterfeiters like Rudy Kurniawan and Hardy Rodenstock before him had to source period-correct glass and spend hours aging capsules, labels, and even corks to make them look old. Modern technology and a global economy bring all the pieces needed to the fingertips of the counterfeiter. They can have glass bottles made with the producer embossing, labels printed with all the antifraud and invisible ink, and have capsules made that are indiscernible from those coming directly from the producer. The opacity of the wine and spirits markets makes it extremely easy to sell the wines, and because they have the antifraud markings and other producer specifications, people do not question them. We are seeing this in all price categories and all over: from Penfolds in China to Yellowtail in the UK, to Jayer in Japan and the USA, to Sassicaia and DRC in Switzerland and Italy.
The other trend we are seeing every week is not counterfeiting but theft. Crooks, including organized crime groups in Eastern Europe and South America, have realized it is easier to steal and sell the real thing than to make counterfeits. Therefore, we are seeing rampant theft from retailers, restaurants, hotels and casinos, storage facilities, and even private homes all over the globe. Again, the opacity of the markets makes reselling stolen bottles as easy as selling responsibly sourced bottles.
* The International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) is an American nongovernmental organization that studies alcohol consumption and related abuse, from drunk driving to counterfeiting and making moonshine. ICAP conducts research in many countries of the world (including Russia).
© Maureen Downey
As far as we can gather from the reports, 2020 has been a very successful year for wine auctions. What do you think, could those fakes that spread around the world in the 2000s enter the market this year?
Interestingly, what we saw in 2020 was a return to auction houses trying to pass off bad fakes. I work with several colleagues monitoring offers, and we were stunned at the brazen offers of clearly counterfeit bottles that were put out last year. I think some of the crooked guys are going to keep testing the waters to see what they can get away with. Other simply do not do any diligence so they can hide behind ignorance when caught. The problem is – you cannot be both experts and ignorant… So that just makes them look like crooks. The good news is that many great auction firms like Hart Davis Hart, Sotheby’s, Zachys, and Bonhams really try to do their best and go to great lengths to vet bottles for both authenticity and health.
You said in your interview for our magazine 2 years ago that many bottles from Rudy Kurniawan remained on the market – could they appear now?
There are still many, many of the Rudy K bottles out in collections and being traded. What I have noticed is that some of his bottles are falling apart. The corks are failing. It is fun to see. Sadly, this is a very small percentage of the bottles.
I think some of the crooked guys are going to keep testing the waters to see what they can get away with.
In general, did you have more work in 2020?
My team and I are busier than we have ever been. Our main job is collection management and expert consultation. During Covid-19 many people were at home, drinking the wines in their cellars, realizing they need to get their cellars organized: inventoried, barcoded, and physically reorganized. Many want to sell off the items they no longer want to drink. After several months of depleting their stock, drinking at home – they desperately need more wine! So we have been busy helping clients on all those fronts. We are also busy helping wineries with their insurance claims following wine country fires, and with all the acquisitions of fine wine brands, we are being hired to help liquidate the library wines of icon wineries that have been purchased by conglomerates. They know a different end of the wine business, but appreciate our consulting on valuation and sales venues for the rare, high-end library wines. Finally, we are working on the biggest counterfeit and bad purchase report we have ever worked on. Many millions in bad wine were sold.
© Maureen Downey
You and a lot of other people have said that Rudy definitely couldn't have done all this alone. During last decade, has there been an investigation and an attempt to find those who helped or maybe directed him?
To my knowledge there has not been any further formal investigation. The US government has a lot on their plate and Rudy has been in jail. If anyone had turned on John Kapon, they likely would have brought a case against him for his part in the fraud, but they have to prove intent, and need a witness to do that. Rudy didn’t turn on John – I think there is a large sum of money awaiting him for his silence once he finally is deported from the USA.
[ed.: Rudy K was finally deported back to Indonesia in April 2021.]
Have there been other cases over the past 10 years of someone going to jail for counterfeiting wine?
Alexander Iugov, aka Alex Anikin, got time served (a few weeks) and a €150,000 fine for counterfeiting DRC for several years. The case against the Sassicaia counterfeiters is moving forward and they may get a slap on the wrist. But in general, no. Sadly, wine fraud is a very lucrative, low-risk crime. Even when caught the punishment is minimal.
If I open wine-searcher.com and type Lafite 1982 or something like that, I can see dozens of online sellers who offer it. Can I be sure that all of them are reliable sources? Is it somehow possible to check it?
There’s absolutely no way to know. On WineFraud.com we have a list of suggested vendors on the free side, and on the member side we have both a Blacklist (do not buy from ever) and a Greylist (proceed with caution) of vendors to help warn people.
We are launching the Chai Vault, which in the future will allow consumers to see an individual bottle’s blockchain-secured online ledger of authenticity and provenance by clicking on a small URL like this.
© Sergey Ratanov
Could it be that a fake wine is on sale in a decent wine boutique, and the staff don’t know about it?
Absolutely. Not everyone that sells counterfeits is bad. Many people are doing their best, but they do not know enough. I can excuse someone once, but we offer the kind of training necessary for a seller of fine wine to vet for authenticity; I feel that if you are going to work in this area, you owe it to your clients to be educated. Wine is a consumable – we would not be okay if a restaurant kept failing health checks, so why do people keep purchasing from vendors who clearly do not care about their well-being or their investment?
Almost every month we read about some new scientific ways to check the authenticity of wine. Have any of them already found wide application in the conduct of auctions and among sellers of old wines?
No – so far, other than the Chai Vault, all solutions are either cosmetic, or they require some kind of lab testing.
Cosmetic solutions do not work, and in fact they are used to substantiate counterfeits. Authentic bottles, with antifraud markings on the labels or embossed glass, can be refilled and presented as authentic – having all the proper bells & whistles. What is worse is that the current international marketplace makes all the pieces of a bottle available to a counterfeiter as described above. In the Sassicaia fraud, the counterfeiters had embossed glass, invisible ink labels with the correct paper, and branded capsules made. They even had the correct counterfeit tissue paper and the wooden boxes packaging.
Many of the cosmetic solutions, like Prooftag, require the buyer to be in immediate proximity to the bottle to scan it. But no one purchases lots of wine by going to a storage space and scanning it. People buy online, via broker and retail offers that are sent over the internet, via futures and at auction – in NONE of those cases is the consumer close enough to the bottle to inspect or scan it.
Also – most producers are very secretive about the cosmetic antifraud methods they employ. So even if vendors are trying to do their best, they do not even know what to look for in vetting the bottles.
Solutions requiring lab work do not help. Who wants to send a bottle to a lab to determine if they can drink it? What a pain in the butt. And the testing is almost always prohibitively expensive. None are currently a solution for anything but scientific findings for court cases.
The Chai Vault is inexpensive, immutable, transferable and can be checked by the buyer in advance of purchase from anywhere in the world. I created the solution after 20 years of seeing partial and impractical solutions presented to me.
I understand that you cannot talk about the current cases of your agency, but maybe there was something interesting recently about which you can already tell?
I can tell you that we are seeing new types of counterfeits. New production methods being used. The biggest issue is the fact that counterfeiters are professionally printing the antifraud markings, and making very, very high quality fakes.
© Roman Suslov
Who can be called the largest wine collectors in the world today?
There are collectors all over the globe that have immense collections. The biggest collectors are typically very wealthy, discreet people that do not want attention. They are in the USA, China, Russia and Europe.
If I ask you to name five great wines that are LEAST often counterfeited, what would you name?
Harlan Estate – the quality of their production is so high it simply does not get counterfeited.
Domaine d’Auvenay, Chateau Margaux, Jean Louis Chave, Masseto
Your twitter account is @moevino, which means "my wine" in Russian. Is there anything that connects you with our country or the Russian language? Or it means something else?
My nickname is Moe. Many people named Maureen are called Moe.
When I first got email in 1998/1999, an Italian friend set up my account. I had met her at Vinitaly and she is like a sister. As I was managing an Italian restaurant in NYC, and we were drinking a lot of Italian wine – she made my email “moevino.” That has become my nickname, my handle on social media, and even the license plate on my car!
I did not mean for it to be a Russian connection – but I am thrilled to know that it is. I so loved my time in Moscow, and the Simple Congress. I cannot wait to get back to Moscow, and this time St. Petersburg too. I am making plans with my clients there to travel to Moscow as soon as the world opens. The White Rabbit is calling me, and so is the beautiful hospitality of the Russian people that I so appreciated! Hope to see you all soon, and until then – Cheers from San Francisco!
Chai Consulting recently launched The Chai Method® (TCM®) Authenticator. Bottles are recorded in a Ledger of Authenticity and Provenance™, an online ledger based on blockchain technology. The bottle’s information is stored encrypted, and updated with each official sale. The Chai Vault bottle badge is already used (or will be soon) by many aggregators, including the website Wine-Searcher, as well as by the large auction house Zachys.
Cover photo: © Maureen Downey.