Sir George Fistonich files second legal claim over sale of Villa Maria winery

Sir George Fistonich has launched a second legal claim over the sale of the Villa Maria winery.

The founder of the winery, Fistonich has filed a multi-million dollar claim for damages in the High Court today against Brendon Gibson and Neale Jackson of Calibre Partners, the bank appointed receiver at Villa Maria.

Fistonich’s company that owned the winery business, FFWL, was placed into receivership in May at the direction of ANZ and Rabobank, which together were owed about $220 million.

The banks appointed Gibson and Jackson as receivers and a sale process was undertaken with investment bank UBS mandated to find interested parties.

It is the second claim Fistonich has brought against the receivers over alleged conduct of the receivership and sales process. His first claim in September sought access to information about the running of the business and in particular, details around the August sale of 35ha of land at the vineyard.

Gibson told the Herald he hadn’t had time to review Fistonich’s claims yet but said Calibre Partners was “well aware of its obligations”.

“We’ve been very considered, as you’d expect us to be, and careful about what we’ve done … and acted in the best interests of people that we need to.”

Gibson said Calibre Partners was “very comfortable” with their actions and will be defending any claim.

The receivers announced they had sold the winery business in Māngere, South Auckland, to New Zealand wine company Indevin and the surrounding land to Goodman Property Trust. The sale includes wineries in Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland, vineyards, supplier agreements, and the Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Vidal and Leftfield brands.

Fistonich alleges he was kept in the dark about the sales process conducted by Calibre, which culminated in the land being sold to developers Goodman, who intend to develop the Māngere property into a $500m industrial estate.

Fistonich’s second claim alleges, amongst other things, that Gibson and Jackson acted in breach of their duties by frustrating him from buying back the land.

“The receivers kept crucial information from me and then changed the numbers at the last minute,” he said in a statement this afternoon.

“They pulled the rug out from under me so that I could not buy the land back, as was my right. I could have saved the land and kept it as a special place for New Zealanders and visitors alike. Instead, the receivers ignored me and sold it off cheaply.”

Fistonich said the land sold for $75m – at about $220 per sq meter – was significantly less than any other land being sold in the area.

“So Calibre has not only failed to follow a proper sales process, it has compounded its mistakes by selling the land at a price that significantly undervalues it,” he said.

Fistonich, who founded Villa Maria in 1961 and is considered a pioneer of the New Zealand wine industry, said he was also “truly gutted” an industrial park is planned for the land.

“Gone will be the award-winning Ihumatao vineyard, replaced by more concrete and development.

“There will be no more fabulous outdoor concerts where people would lounge on the grassy banks and watch the likes of Six60, Tom Jones and Fat Freddy’s Drop. Lost will also be the sweeping entrance off Montgomerie Rd that passes through mature vines on the way to the winery, visited by many visiting dignitaries such as the former Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair, the Duke of Kent, the King of Holland … and many more.”

Fistonich said he did not want the receiver to sell the land and “certainly did not want it sold at a massive undervalue”.

“As the sole shareholder of Villa Maria, Calibre never even bothered to consult me on any of this. They simply wanted me out at any cost and now my vision has been destroyed.

“A huge amount of work and planning went into developing the Villa Maria site in Māngere. We first discussed the potential of the vineyard some 20 years ago. We consulted thoroughly with iwi to establish the vineyard on the land and the vision for its future.”

Involvement with NZ Tourism and NZ Trade and Enterprise was also part of the development process as Villa Maria sought to establish a multi-purpose facility, Fistonich said.

He further claimed the “heavy-handed” approach by ANZ, Rabobank and Calibre were “morally and ethically wrong”.

“I do not take this action lightly. I am also talking to my legal team regarding further action against ANZ Bank and Rabobank … as I seek accountability and justice.”

Fistonich has engaged Jim Farmer, QC, and law firm Meredith Connell to take his case.

Fistonich planted the first grapes at Māngere on land he rented from his father and built up the winery to be one of the most awarded vineyards in the world.

He was knighted in 2009 for services to the industry and stepped down as Villa Maria chief executive in March 2018.

Villa Maria’s assets also include a large winery in Marlborough and surrounding vineyards, a 300ha Gimblett Gravels vineyard and a state-of-the-art winery in Hawkes Bay. It also has a major shareholding in the listed wine company Terra Vitae.

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