Wine Sleuth Sniffs Out Fakes, Takes Hammer to Lafite

on 02/07/12 at 4:33 pm

Wine

Holding a bottle of 1998 Sassicaia in her left hand, Maureen Downey squints at the iconic Italian label through a large silver-rimmed magnifying glass.

It looks authentic, but is it?

We’re in the chilly Vintage Wine Warehouse in Queens, New York, to find out. Downey, with streaked-blond hair, wearing jeans and flip flops that show off white polka-dotted red toenails, is one of the experts you call if you’re worried your Romanee-Conti, Lafite, or Sassicaia might not be legit.

For more than a decade she’s been on counterfeit high alert, first at three auction houses and now at Chai Consulting, the San Francisco-based wine collection management firm she founded in 2005.

The March 8 FBI arrest, and indictment on May 9 by a federal grand jury in New York, of alleged wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan — a.k.a. Dr. Conti — who has sold millions of dollars’ worth of rare wines at auction, have raised fears among collectors about what’s actually in their cellars.

Two weeks ago, French authorities detained four executives of Burgundy negociant Laboure-Roi on suspicion of wine fraud.