9 October 2023

Further twist in Supreme Court hearing on controversial Griffith winery sees mystery resolution imminent

| Oliver Jacques
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Sans Pareil branding on a door in a warehouse

A Sans Pareil office in the Griffith industrial area still displays the company’s branding. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

A Supreme Court hearing into the multi-million dollar liquidation of a Griffith winery will have its final hearing on Tuesday, 17 October, after the liquidator’s lawyer indicated the mysterious matter was close to being resolved.

Hanwood-based Sans Pareil Estate, owned by 29-year-old Aaron Salvestrin, went into liquidation in October 2022. The winery allegedly owes the Australian Tax Office (ATO) just over $32 million and hundreds of thousands of dollars to a string of (mostly small business) creditors in Griffith and other regional towns.

Region’s exclusive investigation revealed the liquidator, insolvency firm Chifley Advisory, initiated Supreme Court proceedings to recover money from the winery. But two previous attempts at a hearing have failed to get off the ground.

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The first was cancelled due to a random courtroom flooding event. The second ended abruptly when Mr Salvestrin’s lawyer announced he wanted to cease representing him and the liquidator’s lawyer didn’t show up.

On Monday, a lawyer introducing himself as Mr Short presented at the courtroom as the legal representative for the liquidator.

“Mr Short, there was no appearance on the last occasion. What do you think may happen today?” Judge Ashley Black asked him.

“I might commence by passing on the apologies for Mr Martin who is counsel brief [lawyer] for the plaintiff [the liquidator]. I understand there was a diary administrative error there,” Mr Short said.

“To answer your honour’s question, I’m seeking to have the matter withstood [scheduled] for final hearing. My instructions are there’s no defence filed … the estimate I have been given is two hours [to resolve the matter].”

The judge and Mr Short agreed to reschedule the matter for a final hearing on Tuesday, 17 October.

No lawyer for Mr Salvestrin was present at Monday’s court hearing.

At the previous hearing on 25 September, Mr Salvestrin’s lawyer, Ben Horne of Aqua Law, announced he wanted to cease representing the 29-year-old Hanwood man.

“My client has failed to comply with Your Honour’s orders, and additionally, there are financial reasons which mean that we can no longer continue to act towards the defendant,” he told the court.

The judge has denied Region’s formal media application to access any court documents filed in the past three months, so the specifics of the case remain shrouded in mystery.

The hearing was in the civil jurisdiction, meaning it related to property or money and was not a criminal matter. No police charges have been laid against Mr Salvestrin or anyone else regarding the liquidation of Sans Pareil Estate.

The winery’s sudden collapse has been a hot topic of discussion in Griffith ever since Region revealed a McLaren P1 Supercar signed by Formula One star Daniel Ricciardo was sold for $1.475 million as part of the liquidation process. Some 29 other vehicles were listed in Chifley Advisory’s January report to creditors as being assets of the winery at some point during its operation, including a $385,000 Mercedes Benz Actros truck, a $137,000 Mercedes Benz GLE53, two Volkswagen Tiguans, a Volkswagen Amarok and three Mitsubishi Outlanders.

McLaren P1 supercar with doors open

A McLaren P1 supercar was sold for $1.4 million as part of the liquidation of the Griffith winery. Photo: Road and Track.

According to one court document seen by Region, the ATO has claimed Sans Pareil Estate lodged fake business activity statements (BAS) to the ATO and made “inflated and fictitious claims” for GST refunds in respect of GST payments, which it never made between July 2020 and September 2022.

A BAS is a form registered businesses must submit to the ATO reporting their tax obligations. When lodging a BAS, companies can claim a refund on GST for goods purchased for export overseas because the 10 per cent tax only applies to items consumed within Australia.

Sans Pareil Estate allegedly received GST refund payments of $17,161,679 more than it should have.

As of February 2023, the winery was alleged to owe the ATO $32,604,461, including penalties and interest.

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In 2022, the ATO teamed up with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to launch Operation Protego, a joint ongoing investigation into suspicious GST refunds claimed by businesses. Both organisations were tight-lipped when Region asked them whether Sans Pareil Estate is being looked at as part of this operation.

“The AFP has no comment,” an AFP spokesperson said.

An ATO spokesperson said: “The ATO cannot comment on the tax affairs of any individual or entity due to our obligations of confidentiality under the law.”

Mr Salvestrin launched Sans Pareil Estate in 2018. The name is a French term meaning “without equal”. The company sold everything from bulk wine to black-label reds and received positive reviews for its flagship product – a 2018 shiraz named Monumental.

Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.

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