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Night Train: An American Legend

Photo by Luka Vovk on Unsplash

The tent city crisis continues. It was even the subject of a recent Econtalk episode, in which the guest explained that the tent cities result from fentanyl-laced meth, which makes users paranoid, so they want to be in an enclosed space (a tent), but when they’re not under the effects, want to be near other users who won’t judge them (the cities).

So, get rid of the fentanyl, then you get rid of the homeless who now have tents.

I have my doubts.

Does anyone remember how fortified wines were supposedly fueling the homeless crisis in the 1980s? On the west coast, no less?

Fortified wine was such a scourge, Portland banned the sale of fortified wines in certain neighborhoods in 1986. Los Angeles asked winemakers to withdraw fortified wines from Skid Row. Those were days when such arrogant paternalism wasn’t recognized for what it is: Puritanism tinged with racism.

The “crisis” was so bad, E & J Gallo pulled its classic, Night Train, from shelves across the country for six months, along with other fortified wines. The result? Olde English 800 malt liquor sales skyrocketed, along with sales of cheap vodka.

But it was a savvy PR move for Gallo.


Did anyone notice with Gallo discontinued Night Train in 2016?

I didn’t. I read about it in Modern Drunkard Magazine (Issue 63), where I also learned that Night Train Express ran for less than 50 years. It was born in the early 1970s and died in 2016.

It was one of the most popular “bum wines,” which E & J Gallo cranked out in many varieties in an effort to replicate the immense success of its Thunderbird, which put Gallo on the map as a major winery in the late 1950s. Night Train (or “the Ticket,” as it was known on the streets; pronounced “da Ticket,” with heavy emphasis on “ti”) was the red counterpart to Thunderbird’s white port base.

Gallo has been criticized for its, ahem, "clumsy" advertising campaigns geared to the inner-cities. Some say Night Train was named after a famous James Brown song. Others say it was named after one of the first great black NFL stars, Dick “Night Train” Lane (who played for my beloved Detroit Lions, back in the days when they could roar). Some say it was simply a promise: it’d hit you like a freight train.

The advertising was so questionable, Gallo didn’t even put its name on the bottle, instead listing “Night Train Limited” as the producer.

Night Train arguably got one of its biggest lifts in The Blues Brothers (1980), when Jake said, “That Night Train’s a mean wine.” Guns N’ Roses even sang about it.

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But now it’s dead.


It, however, lasted longer than its older brother, Ripple, which was the first of the carbonated wines. It was produced from 1960 until 1984 (though I haven’t been able to nail down those years with certainty), making it just 24 years old when it was folded into another Gallo success, Boone’s Farm, which for a short time, was America’s top-selling wine.

I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle of Ripple, much less drinking one, but I remember that Fred Sanford liked to drink it in Sanford and Son, which was, as far as 1970s sit coms go, pretty freakin’ funny, if wholly unacceptable in mainstream society today.

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