Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Which Wine is That?

It's not often you can find a drinkable wine for under ten dollars (at least not in Canada, with our confiscatory booze taxes). Allow me to recommend the Gray Fox Shiraz, which retails for $6.99 (which would make it...what, about a buck and a half  U.S.?). If, like me and most other successful people, you're poor and drink a lot of wine, that represents pretty good bang for your grape-buying buck. Remember, though, I said "drinkable," not "outstanding," and keep in mind that it has to be the Shiraz--the other wines I've tried in the Gray Fox line-up taste like yak urine.

Anyway, I'm enjoying my first (ok, third) glass right now and I notice that the marketing babble on the back label of the bottle includes this line:

Our Shiraz is a full bodied wine which displays ripe raspberry with hints of black pepper and not a trace of yak urine.

Ok, I made that last bit up. But we are still left with the un-hyphenated "full bodied" and, more disturbingly, a misused "which." And it is truly disturbing because it means I have to harsh my wine mellow by getting into a discussion of defining versus non-defining clauses.

A defining (or restrictive) clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence and cannot be removed without causing confusion. Defining clauses use "that" and are not set off with commas: "The wine that I drink is cheap and tastes surprisingly unlike yak urine." Here, the clause "that I drink" is defining the wine in question. Similarly, the example on the Gray Fox bottle needs a "that."

With non-defining clauses we use "which" and set the phrase off with commas: "The wine, which is bottled on a yak farm, is cheap and tastes surprisingly unlike yak urine." In this example, the clause "which is bottled on a yak farm" is incidental and could be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence--in other words, it does not define (or restrict) the essence of what is being conveyed.

Wasn't that fun? Oh yes, I suppose it's worth noting that many otherwise sane (albeit usually British) people are much more lax about this distinction. Even the scrupulously-edited New Yorker, for instance, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, will often allow a "which" to sit in on a defining clause. So if you want to be loosy-goosy with your "thats" and "whichs" you do have reputable sources to call as character witnesses. But you risk being mocked by those of us who appreciate the ripe raspberry nuances of a well-placed "that" and the hints of black pepper in an artfully executed "which."