The upstairs room in Helen's Garden Res-taurant in Canton one Thursday eve-ning is bathed in candlelight and filled with the hum of talk, music and laughter.
About a dozen women sit at tables in the art-filled nook and chat as they nibble from carefully arranged trays of hors d'oeuvres and sip glasses of rose.
Welcome to the Women's Wine & Dine, a monthly event with wine tastings, a three-course gourmet meal, guest speakers and goody bags. No men are allowed.
The dinners, which began in April and sell out every month, offer women the chance to learn about wine in a relaxed "sisterly" setting while raising money for an organization that helps homeless women, says Wine & Dine founder Monyka Berrocosa-Marbach, a 34-year-old food and wine consultant.
The events also reflect a larger trend nationwide that is driving something of a feminine revolution in the multibillion-dollar American wine industry. Across the country and beyond, in private homes, bistros, art galleries and other venues, more women are attending wine tastings and buying and consuming more wine.
"I think women have always been interested in wine, but there were few opportunities to learn about it," says Marbach, a Montreal native who runs a food and wine consulting company, Grape Ventures, and lends her expertise to Smart Woman magazine and WAMD-AM radio.
"For years, the wine industry had not created a welcoming opportunity for women," she says. "Now all of a sudden, there's been a surge in women-and-wine groups, and people are paying more attention."
The increasing number of female wine enthusiasts is having an impact on the wine industry's advertising and marketing strategies, and even its product packaging.
"We have TV channels and everything else you can think of for women, but for some reason the wine industry was really slow to market to women," says national wine columnist Leslie Sbrocco, author of Wine for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing, and Sharing Wine, billed as the first book of its kind written exclusively for women. "There's been this image of male-dominated collectors or talk of how much you pay for it."
"But women own wineries and make wine," she says during a phone chat from her Sonoma County, Calif., home. "They buy wine in the supermarket. They go to restaurants and make choices. Women have buying power. And now the industry knows that."
According to the nonprofit Wine Market Council, women account for almost 64 percent of all American wine consumers. Baltimore reflects some of that national surge. New York-based Scarborough Research found in 2003 that 40 percent of local women had purchased wine within three months of its study.
"We're seeing a great awakening," says David Freed, chairman of Silverado Wine Growers, one of California's largest private growers, and a co-founder of WineVision, a group working to broaden consumption of American wine.
Part of the group's strategy is to make the industry more inclusive, says Freed.
"We are no longer insulated from global competition as we once were," he says. "The industry is realizing that [women and minorities] are some of the groups we need to approach and address."
He cites targeted advertising (for instance, a recent issue of O, the Oprah Magazine featured a wine ad noting its purchase would help support breast-cancer causes), and concerted efforts to reach out to nontraditional consumers.
This summer, WineVision presented a daylong summit in Napa, Calif., to connect industry stakeholders with what has become an increasingly diverse population of U.S. wine consumers.
Among those on hand addressing how suppliers can better serve their needs were some members of Divas Uncorked, 10 African-American professional women from Boston who formed a private wine-tasting / fellowship society about six years ago.
"We're about promoting African-Americans and women in the wine industry," says member Karen Holmes Ward, who terms the group "wine enthusiasts, not experts." The group has started holding events in its city that have drawn multiracial, soldout crowds.
In Baltimore, the women assembled for the Wine & Dine at Helen's Garden represent both wine novices and longtime aficionados. Together they explore grape varieties, flavor and bouquet, food pairings, how to decipher a wine list, buying quality wines that don't cost a bundle and much more.
"How many of you read fashion magazines?" Marbach asks this multigenerational group of married and single women who run the gamut from attorneys to artists, entrepreneurs and retirees. "You know that pink is in this year. Think about that, and what we're drinking tonight -- rose."
The ladies swirl their goblets, inhale and take heady, luxurious sips while bottles of different rose brands are uncorked, passed around and enthusiastically poured.
"What do you smell?" asks Marbach. "Strawberries?" someone ventures.