Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wine as an industrial commodity

Awhile back, when I showed the first train operated into Ballard on my layout (the post describing and showing this “landmark event” is available at: ), Jim Lancaster offered a comment asking about wine transportation, since in that post a conventional RS reefer could be seen standing at my Ballard winery. I replied that I was working on a post about railroad transportation of wine, and here it is.
     The classic idea of winemaking, and often a valid description, is an operation which grows, crushes and ferments its own grapes, then ages its own wine, all on its own property, and eventually bottles it for sale. But not all parts of the wine business work this way. The variations, which may be familiar to enthusiasts who enjoy and are knowledgeable about wine, but not so evident to others, are worth describing. I do so below.
     And incidentally, if you would like to read more about all this, I can warmly recommend a book describing a great deal about how wine is produced, entitled A Very Good Year, by Mike Weiss (Gotham Books, 2005), and subtitled “The Journey of a California Wine from Vine to Table.” It’s available in trade paperback. For a dauntingly complete description of the wine business as it was in the 1950s and ‘60s, you may enjoy Wine, by M.A. Amerine and V.L. Singleton (University of California Press, 1965). A revised edition from 1977 is also available in trade paperback.
     The first point worth emphasizing is that wine grapes do not all get made into wine on the property where they were grown. Not only do many wineries buy and sell harvested grapes, to balance out the properties of their crop in a particular year (such as sugar content and other variables which affect the final wine product), but there are vineyards which make no wine at all, but simply grow grapes, and sell all the grapes that they grow. So in any wine-growing area there is a lively market in harvested grapes at harvest season, as each winery tries to have just the right balance in their “crush.” These grapes may also move longer distances, for example in refrigerator cars, which is relevant to the question of railroad transportation, but the market in grapes is primarily a local market.
     A second point is that there are wineries capable of blending and fermenting grape juice, but which do not have crushing facilities. That creates a market in fresh juice from harvested wine grapes, produced by those who do have crushing facilities but may not need all the juice they produce. This juice also might move longer distances, likely in tank cars, but this is a relatively small market.
     Third, once grape juice has been fermented and made ready to age, it will be stored in various kinds of tanks or barrels. Formally speaking, this is wine already, though it is usually pretty raw and would not seem drinkable to most people. Still, the expert winemaker can taste and analyze this raw wine, and it too may enter the market for blending purposes. Of course, a prospective purchaser might prefer to buy aged rather than raw wine, but the price will be distinctly higher. Either way, this kind of completed wine can and does go to market, regionally or even nationally.
     Where was wine blended or bottled, far from the growing areas? Almost everywhere in the country, as it happens. Some local operations would buy a particular bulk wine and bottle it under their own label; others would buy a range of wines to blend and then bottle. The blending might be needed to raise quality. An example in the steam and transition eras was New York state wine, which suffered from a growing season which was usually unable to produce enough sugar in their grapes. Accordingly, large amounts of California wine were imported (most in tank cars) to be blended with the local product and, presumably, improve it. That bulk wine was far from gourmet quality, but could lend considerable body to a poor wine base, and the California wines were generally cheaper than the local ones, keeping the price down. (Most wines so blended in either Ohio or New York State were usually labeled “American” wines, rather than as Ohio or New York products.)
     A familiar example of this kind of bulk wine movement was the Chateau Martin wine brand, owned by Eastern Wine Corporation of New York. Wines were moved in bulk from California to be bottled in the Bronx. In fact, the wine was sometimes moved in uninsulated tank cars. For much more on Chateau Martin, I highly recommend the web page Jim Lancaster has put together. Here’s a link, if you haven’t already seen Jim’s compilation: . The Chateau Martin cars, painted a vivid burgundy color, are extensively pictured on Jim’s page, but here’s a photo he doesn’t include, by Morris Abowitz at Los Angeles in 1964, from the Bill Sheehan collection:

These cars contained internal tanks and thus were classed as tank cars despite their external appearance. Laconia Industries years ago made an HO scale kit with correctly-colored sides for this kind of car, and I have one in my fleet.
     Before World War II, nearly all bulk “wine” shipments were fortified wine, that is, with brandy additions to raise the alcohol content, which were then usually bottled as a cheap product. After the war, this practice continued, although some table wines were also being shipped. Table wine shipped for blending may have moved occasionally in insulated tank cars, but much more commonly was shipped in barrels. This Will Whittaker photo has long been a favorite of mine, and Will stated that the workmen told him it was a cargo of wine being unloaded (photographed at San Francisco in 1938; PFE Class R-50-1):

This is easy to model, provided of course that you make sure your barrels are not too big to make it through a 4-foot door opening on a swing-door reefer. Here is how I modeled it for my town of San Ardo:

As was often true, this reefer is in ventilation service, with hatches latched open, presumably meaning that temperatures in transit are expected to be moderate. [Note; this photo is corrected from the one originally posted. For an explanation of why this was done, you can visit this link: .]
     Wine tank cars, of course, have been familiar to modelers for many years. One sometimes hears the opinion that wine traffic wasn’t extensive, perhaps the West Coast equivalent of pickle traffic, but as a counter example, I would offer the following photo, taken at Fresno, California in the late 1950s (Southern Pacific photo, courtesy Richard Hendrickson).

As this image shows, wine cars were frequently multiple-compartment cars, but there were also single-compartment and three-compartment tank cars for this kind of cargo. Here’s a prototype example of a single-compartment car, of interest to me at the moment because I have the Sunshine resin kit for this car on my workbench right now. (The photo is from AC&F, courtesy of the Hawkins-Wider-Long collection)

At the NMRA National Convention in Sacramento last July, one of the convention cars was a Walthers insulated car much like this, lettered for California Dispatch Line, a large lessor of wine tank cars. Some of the convention cars are still available and will shortly be shown on the X2011 Convention store, on-line at: . I’m not sure how soon these will return to the store, so check back until they appear.
     The next photo illustrates the more familiar six-compartment car, generally similar to the one above except for the number of compartments (again, AC&F photo from Hawkins-Wider-Long):

In both these photos, the domes have insulated jackets and accordingly have a bigger-looking diameter. This General American photo (courtesy Rob Evans collection) shows a six-compartment car with differently insulated domes:

The Roma lettering may remind some of the old AHM model in HO scale, but that model in fact is terribly oversize, with dimensions corresponding to something north of 12,000 gallons; actual six-compartment wine cars were usually 6000 gallons, meaning 1000 gallons per compartment.
     Here is a shot of that AHM model, and at 40 scale feet in length and with a huge tank, it really looks wrong, once you have looked at some prototype photos.

I sold this model long ago, but now wish I had kept it so it could languish in my display case, as an example of completely incorrect modeling.
     Instead, better models have been done. Precision Scale did a nice brass version a decade or so ago, and Thomas Trains did a metal car kit, more than 50 years ago. I found one of these at a swap meet, and it’s now at work in my freight car fleet. Here it’s shown at my Ballard winery, picking up some bulk wine to take elsewhere for blending use. This model, which properly is sized for 6000 gallons, can be compared to the AHM monster and to the prototype General American photo, above.

     My Zaca Mesa winery produces mostly bulk wines, and accordingly ships out mostly in tank cars and to some extent in barrels. A minimal amount of jug wine in gallon bottles is produced, and is normally shipped (uniced) in reefers, which essentially uses those cars as insulated box cars. Thus outbound loads are expected to move in both wine tank cars and in reefers. There might even be an occasional pickup by a Chateau Martin car!
Tony Thompson


  1. Hi Tony,

    Nice coverage of the wine transport methods of years ago. FYI, the brass 6 dome cars were done by Precision Scale Company and are somewhat difficult to find. They also imported O scale versions at the same time painted in Roma, R. Martini and D&RGW, as well as undecorated. The Rio Grande utilized one or more of the cars in water service after their wine hauling days were over.

    John Ford

  2. Thanks for the concise discussion on wine cars. There is a AHM 6 dome car presently on eBay and now that I have reviewed that car, the grossness is even more apparent. The search for an unmolested Thomas 6-dome kit will continue.

    Chris Coscia

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  4. John, thanks for the comments about the PSC 6-dome cars. One of the D&RGW cars survives (as of this writing) at the California State Railroad Museum.
    Tony Thompson

  5. Chris, If you still follow this blog and are still interested in Thomas 6-dome kits, please let me know. I have them both and I believe they are unbuilt.

  6. Nice article, along all the ones on the wine industry. Its useful even modeling in N scale.
    Not sure what the real Zaca Mesa winery would think of yours bottling "bulk' wines though!

  7. Since lots of vineyards sell wine to others, and lots of vintners buy wine but don't grow any, I doubt it's an issue. But I chose the name when I was modeling the area where the real winery is. Just kept the name.
    Tony Thompson

  8. Hi Tony, I have acquired a few Thomas 6 dome cars for the Friant Branch, to replace the plastic biggies. Two are lettered for Roma, one is undec. Any suggestions for other operators of 6 dome wine tanks? Thanks, -Jay Styron

  9. In addition to the several wineries that had their name put onto these tank cars, there were also GATX, SHPX, and NATX plain silver tank cars, with only reporting marks. Let me know if you would like photos and I can send. These would be easy to reletter.
    Tony Thompson

  10. You said at your RPM clinic the relief valves are different. Are the correct pressure relief valves for the 6 dome cars commercially available? I would like to add them to my new Thomas kit.

  11. Hi, Ken. Wine cars did not need pressure relief, so it was permitted to use only "frangible disk" safety valves. These had a solid disk inside that would rupture at a predictable pressure. A new disk had to be inserted to return to service, of course. You can see these on the prototype Roma photo above.

    Owl Mountain Models makes a very nice brass casting for these parts. I have used them and find them excellent.
    Tony Thompson