New claims pop over SAA’s champagne

2015-02-15 15:00

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Posh Champagne brand Taittinger allegedly helped the wine boss of SAA to take a luxury French trip a few months after the brand became the national airline’s official Champagne supplier.

Taittinger is served in business class on long-distance SAA flights. It replaced one of Taittinger’s biggest competitors, Moët & Chandon, aboard these flights in April 2013.

The online liquor store bottleshop.co.za sells the Taittinger Brut Réserve at R530 per bottle.

City Press has learnt that in August 2013, SAA’s catering chief and sommelier Bongi Sodladla – who is serving a suspension – stayed at the luxury Hôtel de la Paix in Reims on Clovis Taittinger’s account.

Clovis Taittinger is the Champagne company’s head of exports and the son of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, the CEO of the celebrated brand.

At the end of January, City Press disclosed how Sodladla was suspended after her estranged husband made sensational allegations of corruption and fraud about her to SAA.

Among other things, he accused her of taking bribes from Western Cape wine estates so they could get lucrative contracts from the airline.

As SAA’s sommelier, Sodladla played a key role in the airline’s in-flight wine selection.

SAA is now probing these allegations.

A new investigation by City Press reveals that:

»Although Sodladla used her SAA air miles to fly from South Africa to Germany and back in August 2013, Taittinger arranged her flight from Germany to France. SAA does not fly directly to France, but does travel to various cities in Germany;

»City Press has obtained a copy of an email a Taittinger employee sent to Sodladla in which he gave her the details of her flight to Paris;

»The email also says she would have dinner with Clovis Taittinger at the family estate in the Champagne region and would stay at the luxurious Hôtel de la Paix in Reims, the closest city to the Taittinger estate; and

»Sodladla not only stayed at a hotel in Reims at Taittinger’s expense, but was also put up for “one or two nights” in a Paris hotel. Clovis Taittinger has admitted this, saying he paid because the hotel’s location would make it easier for Sodladla to travel to the airport.

Speaking from France, Clovis Taittinger told City Press his company had paid for Sodladla’s ticket from Germany to France.

But Michael Cox, owner of the Cape company that distributes the Champagne in South Africa, suggested Clovis Taittinger might have given incorrect information to City Press because he did not speak fluent English.

Cox first said Sodladla had stayed at the Taittinger estate itself and the company had not covered any hotel costs.

But in a follow-up conversation, he said Taittinger had paid for Sodladla’s hotel bills for “one night in Reims and one in Paris”.

He insisted Taittinger had not paid for any of Sodladla’s airline costs.

Cox said it was standard practice for wine producers to host their clients and there was nothing suspicious or improper about Sodladla’s visit.

SAA refused to give details of its contract with Taittinger to City Press.

Sodladla’s attorney, Roslyn Lerena, said the advocate representing her client had advised her not to respond to “allegations in [City Press’] email”.

“Our client denies any improper or unprofessional behaviour regarding her professional or private life,” Lerena wrote in an email.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said the airline could not answer questions about Sodladla in detail because this would be prejudicial to “certain individuals, entities and the airline”.

He said SAA’s investigation into Sodladla was at an advanced and sensitive stage and certain “external law enforcement agencies” had joined the probe to focus on “certain allegations”.

He would not give any further details.

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