22 September 2023

The mysterious rise and fall of Griffith winery Sans Pareil Estate

| Oliver Jacques
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Sans Pareil Estate was located in Hanwood. Photo: Supplied.

Griffith’s Sans Pareil Estate winery appeared to have established a multi-million export business within four years of opening its doors in an ultra-competitive market. But the sudden collapse of the company that is alleged to owe the Australian Taxation Office more than $30 million has seen the liquidator question whether the export business existed at all. Region’s exclusive ongoing investigation continues.

Opening a new winery in Griffith is a brave move.

The town is home to viticulture giants – Calabria Family Wines, Casella Wines and De Bortoli Wines – that have dominated the industry for generations.

But in 2018, a brash 24-year-old from Hanwood thought he could muscle in on the action. Armed with a TAFE certificate in wine operations, Aaron Salvestrin launched Sans Pareil Estate at his parents’ citrus farm on Old Willbriggie Road.

READ ALSO McLaren P1 supercar sold for $1.47 million in liquidation of Griffith winery

Selling everything from bulk wine to cleanskins to black-label reds, he seemed to cut a swathe through the crowded market. He was praised by government tourism agency Destination NSW for his “rule-breaking wine” and “untraditional methods”.

By March 2022, nine registered businesses were associated with the brand and online platform Australia Wine Connect claimed the Sans Pareil Estate group exported its products to 10 countries and could produce 5.4 million bottles per year.

Aaron Salvestrin was considered a rising star on the Australian wine scene. Photo: Sans Pareil.

Despite modest domestic sales, his ambitious export venture to Europe appeared to blossom into a remarkable success.

Or did it?

The sudden liquidation of the Sans Pareil Estate group of companies in October 2022 left the town of Griffith with more questions than answers.

How was a small business operating out of a Hanwood shed exporting so much wine?

Where were his wine tanks and who were his suppliers?

Who were his European buyers and how did he get them so quickly?

Why was there a need for nine different companies to be registered under the Sans Pareil umbrella?

The liquidator, Sydney-based insolvency firm Chifley Advisory, reached a bombshell preliminary conclusion after its first three months of investigating.

“The companies’ purported main and major international export business does not appear to exist, at least to the level claimed by the director in Sans Estate business activity statements,” Chifley Advisory states in a report to creditors published in January 2023.

The liquidator added the following factors may have contributed to the financial difficulties of the company: “the alleged actions by the director [Aaron Salvestrin] who deliberately created false financial transactions and documents to make it appear as if Sans Estate was making large export sales and purchases. This appears to have been done with the intention of claiming GST refund to which Sans Estate had no entitlement.”

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

In court documents, the ATO has alleged Sans Pareil made “inflated and fictitious claims” for GST refunds in respect of GST payments, which it never made between July 2020 and September 2022. The tax office claims to be owed more than $30 million in overpayments, penalties and interest.

More than 30 local businesses across the Riverina, Victorian and South Australia are also alleged to be owed money by the winery, wondering if they’ll ever get it back.

The liquidation is continuing, with Region revealing a rare 2014 McLaren P1 supercar signed by Formula One star Daniel Ricciardo was sold for $1.47 million as part of the process, an amount far less than what Mr Salvestrin is understood to have paid for the luxury sports car.

Aaron Salvestrin’s McLaren P1 Supercar was signed by Daniel Ricciardo. Photo: Orange_Kieth.

Almost a year after the company went into administration, there are many other valuable assets still to be sold off.

Chifley Advisory has taken Mr Salvestrin and his parents, Dennis and Annette Maree, to the Supreme Court to recover money. In its report to creditors, the insolvency firm alleged the parents have “continuously frustrated the liquidation process” and “failed to provide access to my agents for the collection of assets”.

READ ALSO ATO alleges Griffith winery lodged fake tax statements for GST refund overpayments of $17 million

Adding to this intrigue, a civil Supreme Court hearing on the matter scheduled for 18 September was delayed as the court building suffered a random flooding event.

This means we have still not heard Aaron Salvestrin’s side of the story. The liquidator’s January report states he had been “unavailable and uncontactable due to health reasons”. Region has also attempted to contact him without success.

The ATO’s allegations about Aaron and his parents have not been tested or proven in court, and no criminal charges have been made against him or his family regarding this matter.

The liquidator has also stressed that any conclusions it has made are preliminary and subject to change as the investigation continues.

The delayed Supreme Court civil hearing is expected to be re-scheduled within weeks and further liquidator reports are forthcoming. The town of Griffith may finally have answers to the many questions about the mysterious rise and fall of Sans Pareil Estate soon.

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