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Thursday, May 18, 2023

My column in the May 2023 Model Railroad Hobbyist

As many readers know, I am one of a rotating group of monthly columnists in the Model Railroad Hobbyist on-line magazine. The columns are all called “Getting Real,” and are intended to present prototype-oriented modeling ideas and projects. My latest contribution, which happens to be the 25th one I’ve published in the series, is in the May issue (you can visit ), in “Running Extra.”

My topic this time, and the title of the column, is “Tank Cars and the Wine Business,” and the title was chosen to show that I wasn’t just going to write about wine tank cars, but about how the wine business worked (and still works), in connection with wine transportation. As a transition-era modeler, my emphasis is naturally in that era, but I provided history back into the pre-Prohibition era too.

To some extent, this article is an outgrowth and expansion of a blog post from some time ago, entitled “Wine as an Industrial Commodity,” which can be found at: , with a considerable addition of information about the tank cars that carried wine, much of it courtesy of my late friend Richard Hendrickson.

An important point I tried to make is that the wine business is complex, in that there has for years been a lively traffic in blending wines, and also in wine grapes, moving from place to place. As I stated it, there are vineyards that make no wine, but simply sell their grapes; there are wineries that make wine but grow no grapes; and there are bottlers that have no winery.

I took some pains in the article to clarify that although the common perception is that a wine tank car had six compartments, like the one below, there were also many four-compartment and three-compartment cars, and many of the three-compartment tanks had been converted from single-compartment cars.

The car shown above is a very typical wine car, in that it is insulated (jacketed, if you will), has frangible-disk safety equipment instead of spring-loaded safety valves, is lined with glass (in the form of porcelain enamel), and is an AAR Class 203 car, not an ICC class. The article goes into some detail on these features.

The numerous three-compartment cars that had been converted by adding end compartments are distinctive and important to model if you have any amount of wine traffic. I have modeled such a car by the very prototypical approach of adding domes to an existing car model. The modeling needed to do so is described in the article, but here’s my model (starting from an Proto2000 insulated tank car):

The modeling the resulted in this car was described in an earlier blog post (you can see it at: ). The model is shown above at the loading rack of my winery in the town of Ballard.

At the same winery loading spot is shown an excellent HO scale version of the iconic 6-compartment wine tank car, from Precision Scale. It’s correctly sized and has been decal lettered as GATX 972.

Of course for most modelers wine tank cars would simply move in mainline freight trains, but since I have both a winery and a wine-shipper’s warehouse on my layout, I can show car loading. That’s true for the photo above, and also at my warehouse, where in this case barrels of blending wine are being readied for loading:

So spotting a car for loading is part of my layout’s wine traffic, and for me, an interesting addition to the totality of what gets switched in an operating session. Here the Santa Rosalia Local’s power is spotting a Tangent 8000-gallon car, lettered for Roma Wine Co., for loading at my winery.

The article was fun to research and write (only occasionally aided by consumption of the subject beverage), and I hope it give more modelers some ideas about the varieties of wine-business traffic they can add to their operating sessions.

Tony Thompson


  1. What decals did you use for the PSC car?


    1. I used the Champ set for Roma Wine, which has GATX lettering, along with data for each expansion dome.
      Tony Thompson

  2. Perhaps this has already been addressed and I missed it (because your blog is huge), but I'd love to know more about how wine was shipped out of California to the rest of the US during the transition era. I work for a large wine and spirits distributor here in the Midwest, and I never realized the vastness of these volumes until I left the railroad for this business.

    Wine, spirits, and beer, are all consumable product just like meat, dairy products, foodstuffs, etc. The shipments never seem to end so long as people drink, and that's great freight business. But what makes wine different is that it's almost entirely on the West Coast while the bulk of the US (and Canadian) population is in the eastern half of the continent - and this is even more true during the transition era of railroads. I would think that wine alone could make up a respectable portion of an eastward manifest train to major railroad interchange points in the Midwest and beyond.

    Our warehouse receives wine and spirits in cases ready for retail, with the winemaker or distiller's name and logo on the case, twelve bottles inside. A pallet full of these cases, a 53' trailer full of these pallets. We receive countless trucks a day, and we serve just one metro area. So during the transition era and prior, one would assume that the wine business was shipping in boxcars. But in what volume? And what type of boxcar? And was there any possibility that California sellers would ship wine before it was actually bought by a wholesaler, instead sold en route in the same way that some bulk commodities were?

    (Regardless of wine, this last question is important in general for authentic routing because this was a common practice for some bulk commodities. For example, many Canadian lumber companies would intentionally route via MN&S because it was a slow, run-down belt around the Twin Cities and this bought brokers more time to sell the lumber. MN&S would then transfer to CGW who would rocket the lumber down to Chicago or Kansas City.)

    Anyway, to better understand authentic eastern wine traffic volume, I also wonder to what extent it was hindered by European wines still holding the significant market share.

    Anyway, I'd love to more about this side of this business. Again, if you've already written on this subject and I missed it, let me know. Great stuff here, I enjoy thumbing through your articles that focus on the business side of railroading.

    1. Packaged wine (bottles in cases) was shipped in dry refrigerator cars, and in cooler weather, box cars, if we are talking before 1955. After that, the use of insulated box cars would have predominated.
      Tony Thompson

    2. Thanks for that, Mr. T. Is there any information on what typical outbound volumes would have been like per day/week/month/year during this time? Or is that something simply too wonky and obscure for anyone to ever know? I really have no idea...but if I did, I'd certainly take it into account in the future for my layout. I don't recall ever seeing a beverage distributer on a layout before and it's sparked my interest.

  3. I have never delved into actual shipment volumes. But both state and USDA production records are available, nowadays many on line. I think it would be worth looking in those areas.
    Tony Thompson