As a couple of dozen women trickled into a popular lakefront restaurant in Columbia, the noise level jumped a notch or two. Conversation usually trumps wine-drinking whenever Girls Who Swirl gets together, though not by much.
Part networking opportunity, part unofficial sorority and part gathering of wine aficionados, the eclectic women-only group had come to Clyde's on Monday evening to take advantage of half-price wine night.
"Simply put, we are a very enthusiastic group of professional women who love to drink wine," said organizer Jody Aud of the Howard County portion of Mount Airy. "But we have no expectations, and we don't serve rubber chicken."
Aud created the group on a whim three years ago as a counterpart to the good ole boys' golf outing. Working from her contact list to start, she has seen the group's ranks swell to 150 professional women who gather to forge female friendships while caressing a long-stemmed glass. The participants range from mid-30s to mid-60s, Aud said, and though most are from Howard County, others come from all around the Baltimore region.
In a way, the group's purpose is Seinfeld-esque - it is a group about nothing, in the best possible sense. Those who attend say they look forward to getting down to the business of not getting down to business. It isn't really a club and there are no dues, though there is a Web site ( www.girlswhoswirl.com) where event information is posted. Regulars often bring friends who become regulars.
"This is not a place to do business, so we tell new women not to bring a resume," said Aud, who heads a communications planning firm. "If they do, they'll have to take it outside."
Sometimes business cards do get swapped and collaborations are hatched; it comes with the territory. But the group mainly exists as a way to connect with professionals from across the region.
"It's truly about the women," said Dawn Audia, an insurance executive from Columbia. "This group is not for sissies. It's all about being who you are."
Monday's event - one of four randomly scheduled gatherings each year - was labeled Girls Who Swirl "Lite" on the e-mail invitations.
"I don't know about you, but the economy's got me down," wrote Aud, the driving force behind the events. "So this month, let's go economy-style! You can save money AND have a great time, as always, with the most fabulous women on the planet."
While the theme drew many RSVPs of "count me in," a few affirmative replies got more creative.
"Maybe the Dow will be at zero by then, and we can celebrate a REAL market buying opportunity," wrote Lisa Lau.
"Can't whine about the price of wine this time," wrote Barbara Lawson, recently retired president of the Columbia Foundation.
Tami Schmidt posted an amusing regret: "Sorry - day care strikes again and I'm fighting off an ugly cold ... I'll raise a glass of Nyquil to you from home."
As the evening wore on, the conversation never waned.
Mela Kucera entertained a small throng with her plans to attend a friend's wedding on Halloween at Elvis Presley's Graceland estate. Stacie Irish of Leadership Howard County talked about a new program for up-and-coming community leaders. And someone explained the Women's Giving Circle's emphasis on women's issues.
The sound of connections being cemented was nearly audible amid the laughter.
"Everyone here can tell you how they got involved with Girls Who Swirl," said Taj Carson of Baltimore, who owns a company that conducts customer satisfaction surveys and other social opinion research.
"It's 'Six Degrees of Separation,' with Jody as our Kevin Bacon," she said, referring to a popular game in which people try to trace a social connection to the Hollywood actor using no more than a half-dozen steps.
Empty bottles accumulated on tables in the wood-paneled library area where the women were sequestered. Vintages from France and Italy were joined by products of Spain and even Oregon.
"We really do know a lot about wine," said Aud, who counted herself among the uninformed when Girls Who Swirl was born. She said the group has had interactive seminars with Laurie Forster, a Talbot County wine coach, who taught them how to swirl and to pair food with wine.
Forster, a certified sommelier and author, said Girls Who Swirl is a very knowledgeable yet down-to-earth group whose members know "the best way to learn is by tasting."
In pursuit of furthering their "education," the Girls have met at venues all over the Baltimore area. Usually, five wines are pre-selected by the host establishment and paired with foods that complement them, all at a prepaid price. But at Clyde's it was pay-as-you-go and the women ordered confidently from the eatery's wine list, which boasts three dozen entries.
Many events have been more grandiose than Monday's get-together. The women once gathered in an upscale jewelry store, which had wine and hors d'oeuvres brought in. There's talk of going to a Canton factory where participants can select a fabric and create a one-of-a-kind purse - all the while sipping wine, of course. And a Baltimore County wine store is negotiating to host the Girls for an evening, promising a demonstration on holiday appetizers.
Aud, who likens her role to that of a cruise director, is always on the lookout for something new for the group to try. While most establishments would like the women's repeat business, she said, the group rarely shows up at the same place twice.
Most of the time, the women blend in with their host restaurant's other patrons. But one particularly high-powered session at the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Clarksville led to a few disparaging glances from casual diners who had come for a quiet evening.
"When we left I said to this one woman, 'You don't know whether to hate us or to join us,' " recalled Aud, chuckling at the memory. "And she replied, 'It's a little of both.' "
Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holz berg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-461-4150.