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After the Series, Mumm's the Word 

Bubbly and baseball, plus a quirky collection of 78 RPM records

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
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To celebrate their National League Championship Series-clinching win over St. Louis a week ago, the Giants cracked open 20 cases of Mumm Cuvée Napa, a delicate, medium-bodied sparkling wine whose quiet hint of melon could later be found on the clubhouse walls, the TV guys' toupees, and Dusty Baker's chin.

The cold blast of victory champagne is a sports tradition. But what, we wondered, do the winemakers think? Surely they don't walk barefoot in vats of grapes and fuss over a cellarful of bottles just so some utility infielder can burp $30 bubbly after a big game.

Actually, though, the folks at Mumm Cuvée Napa, a brand of the Healdsburg-based Allied Domecq Wines USA, say they didn't cringe as all that wine went to waste. "It's a very emotional time," says Greg Ahn, brand manager for Mumm Cuvée Napa, which donated the cases. "It's not as if we want them to pop open a bottle, pour it into glass flutes, and make toasts over caviar. That's not part of the mood."

If San Francisco tops Anaheim in the World Series, Mumm Cuvée Napa, which has worked with the Giants in the past, would likely provide the wine. That would bring the total donation for the playoffs to about 1,000 bottles, or $30,000, according to Ahn. "We're big Giants fans," he says, though, he notes, the Angels got one free case of bubbly when they locked up the ALCS.

Liz Dueland, an Allied Domecq spokeswoman, calls the gifts an "investment," though it's not clear what kind of returns she expects. Ahn, meantime, says the post-game celebrations are "part of the mystique of sparkling wine."

"We're not paying to have Barry Bonds hold up a bottle in front of the camera, with the label facing forward," he insists. "It's not orchestrated like that."

And it's OK if that mystique winds up in a reliever's goatee. "Given its effervescent quality," Dueland says, "it's good to sip as well as spray." -- Tommy Craggs

Hablamos 78

It's easy to spot 78 geeks. Even compared to other record collectors, 78 geeks are excessive in their obsessive-compulsiveness. They suffer from neck and back problems stemming from the heavy burden of nostalgia they carry. Their speech consists of vitriolic rants about things that happened after 1950. They are partial to cardigan sweaters.

Alberto and Antonio Cuellar would seem, then, to be anything but typical 78 devotees. The two Mission District-dwelling brothers, ages 26 and 28, sport telltale signs of hipsterism: Antonio has carefully crafted, finlike sideburns, and Alberto's brown Wranglers are well broken-in at the knees. They play in a band called La Pleba whose music they describe as "Mexican punk." Nonetheless, the Cuellar brothers are today the world's foremost experts on Mexican plastic recordings played at 78 revolutions per minute.

For the past year, the two have been developing a digital archive of the biggest Mexican 78 collection in the world. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection, as it's called, belongs to Chris Strachwitz, a musical ethnographer and the founder and president of El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records. Strachwitz made some of the earliest recordings of bluesman Lightning Hopkins and Cajun artist Clifton Chenier, among other roots legends, and has won a lifetime achievement award for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts. For the past 30-plus years, he's focused on collecting Mexican music -- buying 78s from radio stations that were going out of business and from private collectors. He now has 14,000 Mexican 78s, containing (for the mathematically challenged among our readers) 28,000 songs. He plans to digitize and then catalog them, creating the largest archive of Mexican music in the world. When it's finished, it is destined for the UCLA Library, property of the Chicano studies department.

Though Alberto Cuellar does some work as a tax preparer, his real interest is the music biz. He called Arhoolie Records looking for a job last year, and Strachwitz hired him to help create the Frontera 78s archive. When February rolled around, Alberto brought on his brother to fill in at Arhoolie while he did taxes. With tax time over, the brothers, both fluent in Spanish, now work together on the archiving project.

The Cuellars work in a bedroom that has been turned into an office in a '60s-era, two-story house attached to the back of the Arhoolie Records offices in El Cerrito. Antonio gingerly removes a dusty 78 from its yellowed slipcover and places it on a contraption that looks like a chunky record player. Actually, though, it's a record cleaner. Water squirts onto the plastic disc, then a hollow arm creeps into the center of the record and moves toward the outside, vacuuming water and filth from the record as it goes, in the manner of a dentist's suction tube.

The label of the 78 is scanned, so scholars will be able to see what the record looked like long after the fragile piece of shellac has been destroyed. Antonio reads the label out loud for audio recording in digital format, and then plays the record, so its music can also be transferred to digital form. The brothers listen to the lyrics, jotting down key words that describe what the song is about (love, murder, revenge) and its instrumentation (in this case, piano). It's their 6,355th Mexican track, and they are only one-fifth of the way through the 78 collection. They will repeat this process approximately 55 times a day, for seven or eight hours. Antonio works five days a week on the project; Alberto works three.

The recordings run a gamut that includes everything from banda (big brass bands) to mariachi to corridos (Mexican folk ballads inspired by real-life adventures) and on to Suby (Puerto Rican big band). One brother despises the military marches; the other cringes at the "high-toned operatic stuff." Occasionally, they will run across talking records, including those by Netty y Jesús, a man/woman comedy team whose patter is a reflection of their times (1933). In one bit, for example, Jesús laments the harsh wife-beating laws of the USA.

The project is not without its challenges. Most of the labels on the 78s -- some of which go back to the early 1900s -- are undated, and the Cuellars must guess at the vintage. One day last week, a recording called "Fusilamento de Hidalgo" comes up for archiving. It is a dramatic parody of an execution, and ends with a drum roll. The Cuellars guess it originated during the Mexican Revolution, and, therefore, date it in the 1910-1940 range.

Chris Strachwitz, standing over their shoulders on this particular day, disagrees. "I think if they recorded this, that it would be pre-radio, like 1904. You should probably not say the Revolution, because it was probably the French occupation." The brothers learn something; the change is made.

But the value of what one might learn by listening to thousands of Mexican historical 78 rpm recordings is not always obvious. "I don't really know what we'll do with this knowledge when we're finished," Antonio says. "I come home and talk my friends' ears off, and they don't have any idea what I'm talking about." -- Lessley Anderson

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