4 June 2024

Griffith winemaker declared bankruptcy after court ordered him to pay back $8.4 million

| Oliver Jacques
Aaron Salvestrin

Aaron Salvestrin was once touted as a rising star of the industry. Photo: Sans Pareil.

Griffith winemaker Aaron Salvestrin declared himself bankrupt just seven days after the Supreme Court ordered him to pay back several million dollars to creditors, an exclusive Region investigation has revealed.

The 29-year-old’s winery Sans Pareil Estate went into liquidation in October 2022 and was alleged to have received up to $17 million from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) from “fraudulent” GST refund claims.

In 2023, the liquidator, Gavin Moss, launched Supreme Court proceedings to recover money from Mr Salvestrin. He alleged the company director made several “personal” transactions that did not benefit the business and therefore breached corporation law.

On 15 March 2024, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mr Moss and ordered Mr Salvestrin to pay back creditors $8.4 million.

READ ALSO Griffith winery’s collapse subject of new Supreme Court hearing after Collina house sale

According to court documents, the winemaker voluntarily went into bankruptcy on 22 March 2024, and a trustee was appointed to manage his estate.

What bankruptcy means

Bankruptcy is a legal process that can relieve a person from their debts while a trustee controls their assets, income and finances.

“In America, they talk about bankruptcy being for companies,” Wagga-based insolvency expert Andrew Bowcher of RSM Australia says.

“But in Australia, bankruptcy is for an individual. A company can go into liquidation or receivership, but a person becomes bankrupt.”

A bankrupt person with no dependents is able to keep up to $70,000 a year they earn in income. But a proportion of income earned above this threshold can be seized by the trustee and used to pay back creditors.

A McLaren P1 Supercar signed by Daniel Ricciardo was sold for $1.47 million as part of the winery liquidation.

A McLaren P1 Supercar signed by Daniel Ricciardo was sold for $1.47 million as part of the winery liquidation. Photo: Orange_Kieth.

The individual can also keep basic household items and a car valued up to $9000. A trustee can sell off more valuable assets they’re found to own.

“The idea of bankruptcy is to try to enable a person to restart again and become a functioning member of society,” Mr Bowcher said.

The flip side is that creditors may never receive money they’re owed. But bankruptcy also imposes restrictions on those who declare it.

“You can’t be a director of a company while you’re bankrupt and you generally can’t go overseas without the trustee’s approval … a bankruptcy lasts for three years, but can be extended,” Mr Bowcher said.

Liquidator reaction

Region contacted Paul Hunt, lawyer for Mr Moss, to ask how Mr Salvestrin’s bankruptcy would impact on the winery liquidation.

He said it would be inappropriate to provide specific details, but provided the following comment.

“The liquidator is now a creditor in the bankruptcy of the director for the judgment amount, and accordingly engages with the trustee in bankruptcy in respect of that,” he said.

“A liquidation can be a complicated process with many factors to be taken into account, and the progress of a liquidation is reported to creditors at the appropriate times.”

The latest update to creditors was provided in December 2023. At that time, around $2 million in funds had been recovered, while the total cost of the liquidation had been around $1.5 million.

Since then, a Collina house deemed an asset of the winery was sold for $767,500, with net sale funds added to liquidation proceeds.

READ ALSO Griffith business ‘fraudulently’ claimed to have bought $200 million worth of wine to get GST refunds, ATO alleges

What else we know

Region understands that there are very few, if any, winery assets left to be sold.

Most funds recovered through the liquidation have come from the sale of a single asset – an imported McLaren P1 supercar signed by Formula One star Daniel Ricciardo, which was sold by liquidators for $1.47 million in January 2023.

According to court documents, Sans Pareil allegedly claimed to have bought more than $200 million worth of wine that it didn’t actually purchase so it could “fraudulently” claim $17 million in GST refunds.

Overall, the winery is alleged to owe the ATO more than $32 million, including penalties and interest charges. Several small businesses are also allegedly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr Salvestrin did not attend any court hearing and has not responded to any of Region’s requests for comment.

The Supreme Court cases against Mr Salvestrin have been in the civil jurisdiction, meaning they relate to property or money and are not criminal matters.

Mr Salvestrin has not been charged with any crimes related to this matter.

The Australian Federal Police and Australian Tax Office have both declined Region’s request to comment on whether they are investigating this liquidation further.

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