Today’s words come to us from German revolutionary and eventual Illinois Lieutenant Governor, Gustav Koerner. I know, I know. Gustav who?!? Koerner easily makes the list of Who’s Who in Obscure American History. But, he’s actually kind of important. Because he was one of the guys responsible for winning Abraham Lincoln the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. Do the historical what-ifs . . . if Lincoln hadn’t won that nomination, he wouldn’t have been president. And if Lincoln hadn’t been president . . . well, the historical dominoes might have fallen a little differently.
A little background . . .
In 1833, Koerner tried (and failed) to overthrow the municipal government of Frankfurt, Germany. The Germans don’t just love it when people try to overthrow their government, so they gave him a choice — exile or prison. Kernel took the “America, here I come!” option. Koerner arrived in America that same year, and landed in Illinois, where he met a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.
Fast forward to the Republican Convention of 1860. It was Koerner who arranged for the convention to he held in Chicago, which in effect, gave Lincoln home-field advantage. Well played, Herr Koerner. At the start of the convention, there were five candidates: Lincoln, William Seward (widely considered the front-runner), Edward Bates, Simon Cameron, and Salmon Chase. The Republicans knew they couldn’t win the general election without the support of German-American immigrants in the midwest (by 1860, an estimated 1.3 million German immigrants lived in the United States, most of them in the midwest). Koerner lobbied tirelessly in the background, convincing the German-American delegates to throw their support behind Lincoln.
But, Koerner also indulged in a little political trickery. On the eve of the ballot, Lincoln’s political team distributed scads of counterfeit tickets, packing the convention center floor with Lincoln supporters. Seward’s supporters were happily parading around outside the convention center, and by the time they arrived to take their seats, they were shut out. The ballots began, and (longer story short), by the third ballot, Lincoln was the nominee.
Koerner and Lincoln remained friends throughout Lincoln’s presidency. And Koerner served as one of the pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral.
What the heck does any of this have to do with wine?
In addition to a pile of politics, Koerner’s memoirs are peppered with references to Rhine wine. Koerner was a German, after all. When Koerner first arrived in the United States in 1833, he tells a story about stopping at an Illinois farm and being offered some “wild grape wine”. This wild grape wine was probably made from the Isabella grape (a Vitis x Labruscana hybrid), which Koerner called, “a good eating grape, but a very indifferent wine”. It was probably a foxy wine (think Welch’s grape jelly), and often doctored with sugar, a practice Koerner attributed to an American preference for sweet wines:
The full quote gives a more complete context, so here you go:
Of course we were all very curious to taste it [the Isabella wine]. It was really very good, though it had been doctored a little by an addition of sugar, the Americans having no liking for wine unless it is sweet. I have heard Americans who were excellent judges of brandy, Madeira or sherry, pronounce the finest and most aromatic Rhine wines as unfit to drink, and as sour as vinegar. Of course the taste has now been much trained in this respect in this country, and good Rhine wine is appreciated very generally.*
Well, I for one, appreciate good Rhine wine . . . very specifically.
*Koerner, Gustav. Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896, Life-sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children.