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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."
But Downey is not the type to blanch. She grew up with two older brothers, and learned from an early age how to curse, to swap wisecracks. She certainly wasn't enamored with the crudeness of Kurniawan and his cronies, but she could hang: "I'm not going to walk into someone else's party and tell them to change their rules."
Her issue was with Kurniawan's substance. Wine industry pundits have questioned whether he only started counterfeiting late in his career, when profligate spending habits landed him in serious debt. But Downey pegs him for a career hustler.
She first encountered Kurniawan in 2002, at the start of his ascent. As a senior specialist at Zachys, a high-end auction house in New York, Downey was in charge of vetting wine before each auction. Her job involved writing up each bottle's known history, using whatever knowledge she could gather. For instance, if a batch had been shoddily stored, she would want to inform potential bidders. Buyer beware: possible vinegar afoot.
Kurniawan tried placing a consignment of rare Pomerols from the '40s and '50s with Zachys. These were wines Downey hadn't seen sold for over a decade. It raised the question: How did this 25-year-old punk, who only one year earlier had his "wine epiphany" moment at his father's birthday on Fisherman's Wharf, obtain these precious Bordeaux gems?
Downey was immediately on alert, and she demanded a paper trail. When all he could offer were some sketchy faxed receipts in Chinese, she refused the consignment.
To her, it seemed like a no-brainer. If you're going to peddle some of the world's rarest wines, you better have a solid trail leading to an irreproachable source. But such was not the culture at the time.
Matt Chung, an account advisor at Downey's consulting firm, worked with Downey at Zachys back in 2003. He says everyone is leery now, and auction houses will not sell wine unless they are 100 percent certain of its history. "It was a different climate then," he said. "If (an auction house) couldn't prove beyond a doubt that wine was fake, they'd just say 'We don't know.' Caveat emptor."
For Downey, this was lazy and unacceptable, a practice that could tarnish auction houses and muddy the market with illegitimate wine. But from an early stage, she ran into resistance.
In 2004, she was inspecting a warehouse full of wines in advance of a Zachys auction. She came across some "problematic" bottles of 1982 Pétrus, one of the world's most faked wines, and flagged them for removal. A Zachys higher-up named Kevin Swersey balked, vouching for the authenticity himself.
"Kevin told [Zachys' owners] that his knowledge and information was superior to mine, rather than copping to the fact that he didn't know what the fuck he was talking about," Downey says.
Her objections were overruled, and the wines were sold at auction. But months later, during Zachys' company retreat in the Hamptons, the buyer called her up, furious. When he had opened the bottles at a dinner, the corks read "1981." Downey was livid.
"I mustered all the tact I had, then threw it out the window," she recalls. Downey marched into a companywide meeting and went off, publicly shaming Swersey for his error. She was canned the next day.
Swersey is one of many names on Downey's epic shitlist, which is largely populated by the professionals who failed to check Kurniawan's fraud. Her indictments are broad: auction house specialists, journalists, brokers, retailers, proxy bidders. To hear her tell it, an entire industry was complicit.
Grandison, one of Downey's clients, agrees that the message was unpopular, but he also blames a boys' club mentality. "Her personality is so strong, and her opinions were seen as emotional ... they discounted her because she's a woman."
Certainly it's a common trope, the dismissal of a righteous female when her opinions go against the grain. Downey's stern finger-pointing landed her on the buzzkill side of what many would characterize as an epic, years-long party. "Who wants to hear the sky is falling?" asks Greg Gregory, another of Downey's clients.
Despite the disinterest of the wine world, Downey persevered. And, slowly, she had an effect. Robinson interviewed Downey for a circumspect 2007 Financial Times article on wine fraud. It was one of the first pieces of journalism to allude to Kurniawan's MO, though it didn't call him out by name. Robinson says Downey's contributions toward opening the dialogue on wine fraud were "invaluable." Still, Robinson says, "All the participants in these great orgies of wine-drinking must've thought Maureen was kind of a nag."