It used to be OK just to drink a beer or sip some wine.
Nowadays, however, you are supposed to "pair" your beverage with food.
As a basic guzzler, my tendency in this regard has been to pair the size of the entree with the size of the beverage glass. A hunk of beef meant a humongous glass of wine.
This, I have since learned, is not the correct way to approach pairing.
I learned the right way, or at least some of the concepts, by attending two wine dinners and talking with experts. I picked up three tips.
First, when selecting a wine to pair with a dish, check the color of your coulis. Coulis is a fancy name for a sauce that has been pureed. Pureed is a fancy way of saying pulverized in the food processor.
I got this color-of-the-coulis idea at a dinner at the Brass Elephant restaurant. The occasion was the first of a series of special once-a-month dinners at which five food courses are paired with five wines for $65 a person. The next such dinner is Nov. 12. Around the second course, I was digging into the steamed shrimp, when I looked in my wine glass and saw red. Specifically some red Robert Keenan Merlot, 1986. This was against the rules. I know it was written somewhere, maybe on the back of my hand, that you are not supposed to serve red wine with fish, especially shellfish.
I had seen this rule broken a few times before, when the wine in question was one of those wimp reds, also known as "blush wines." Serving wimp reds with seafood is like driving 60 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone. Technically it is an infraction, but most authorities don't care.
But this particular red wine had muscle. Moreover, I liked the way it matched up with the flavors of the sauced shrimp. It was a good pairing, but it made me uneasy. It was against the law, at least the old laws of food and wine.
The Brass Elephant staff consoled me. They urged me to free myself from the old white wine with fish, red wine with meat myth. They talked about judging the wine and the food on their flavors, not on their color. Still it was unsettling.
Those rules may have been wrong, but they were something to lean on. When faced with an unending wine list, an impatient waiter and possible embarrassment in front of my fellow diners, I could repeat to myself the old wine ordering mantra, "Red meat, white fish," and pick a wine.
With this rule gone, I didn't have a prop. And I needed one.
I found it in the color of coulis. The tomato coulis that was paired with the shrimp was red, or at least reddish. That was also the color of the wine.
So now when I go out to dinner with friends, and the burden of ordering the color of the wine falls on me, I ask the waiter. "What color is this coulis?" Everyone is impressed.
Tip No. 2: Match the Midsection. This method of wine selection matches the texture of the food with the persnicketiness of the eater.
It works like this. If you like the middle of your entree to be juicy, as in bleeding, then go for the red wine. This let-it-flow mood applies to the interiors of meat and hunks of beefy fish like swordfish.
If on the other hand, you like the middle of your fish to appea orderly with no unruly juices, then you are in the mood for white wine.
If you like the middle of your beef to be dry and freed of juice, then it doesn't matter what you drink. Go ahead and swallow Dr Pepper, you've ruined the beef.
I put this personality-based method to use recently at a lunch at Carrol's Creek restaurant in Annapolis.
The fish course, scallops tequila, was served first. The scallops were easily subdued with a fork, their perfectly cooked middles models of decorum. Therefore this dish called for a white wine, a 1987 William Hill Reserve Chardonnay.
The entree, however, was bodacious: a filet of beef smoked with wood chips made from Jack Daniel's whiskey barrels, and served with jalapeno and red chili butter sauces.
Moreover, the interior of the filet was as red and spectacular as a sunset. The wine that went with this beef was a 1987 vintage Opus One, a special red wine made from grapes from about 12 California vineyards, a process overseen by winemakers Tim Mondavi and Patrick Leon.
The vintage had just been released and was being served on a by-the-glass basis at Carrol's Creek as well as tony establishments such as Boston's Four Seasons restaurant, Washington's Jean-Louis, and the Ritz-Carlton hotels all around America. The wine didn't let the beef overpower it. Its fruit went right well with the smoky outer portion of the meat, and the wine's acidic components were still in there kicking when it matched up with the juicy bright red center section of the meat. The middle theory held.
Tip No. 3: All the Old Wine Rules Now Apply to Beer.
This is a tip I picked from Arthur Seddon, master brewer of England's Bass brewery. Seddon was in Baltimore recently sampling a few local brews and discussing trade secrets. Among them was that the best way to match beer with food was to follow the old rules for wine. He said treat ales like red wines. Serve Bass or the local ales, Sisson's and Oxford Class, with beef, game and hearty entrees.
The lagers, like Pilsner Urquell and the one brewed at Baltimore Brewing Company, should be treated like white wine under the old rules. This means they should be served with fish, or pasta.
The only exception to this new-beer, old-wine method of matching food and drink, was lobster.
That, he said, should be served with ale.
Depending, I might add, on the color of the coulis.