In Bloomington, Ind., every experience is educational

Sample Gates marks the entry to Indiana University's campus. Visitors can broaden their horizons on either side of the gate.
Sample Gates marks the entry to Indiana University's campus. Visitors can broaden their horizons on either side of the gate. (Bigstock)
By Robin Soslow
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 30, 2010; 11:18 AM

Is the unexamined grape worth tasting?

The fragrance of Butler Winery's 2009 Chardonel gives me the warm fuzzies. Minutes before, I'd sniffed the varietal's budding baby grapes in the five-acre vineyard outside the tasting room.

"What kind of wine do you like? Have you wondered why? Where are you from?" Jim Butler quizzes visitors during free tastings at the Bloomington, Ind., winery he opened in 1983. No wonder; the Indiana University-educated historian is always researching cultural and regional biases of taste.

We're sipping beneath a wraparound "Four Seasons of Winemaking" mural painted by a local pizzamaker; Butler is toting the refractometer he uses to measure the pH of grapes on the vine. In southern Indiana, he explains, viticulture is assisted by the hilly terrain just barely missed by the glaciers that flattened the Plains. The limestone soil and a pond that moderates hot and cold weather also aid his vineyard.

Correctly pegging me as a careerist yearning to go back to school, Butler presses me to read "Indiana Wine: A History," which he wrote with his son, John.

My Bloomington travel plan - cramming in as much free culture as possible - hadn't included an all-nighter with a book. But I'm hooked by its account of 14-year-old John James Dufour, who decided to pioneer winemaking in the New World after reading that French army officers aiding American revolutionaries "complained of the scarcity of the wine among them, in the midst of the greatest abundance of every thing else." Arriving from Switzerland in 1796, he moved his colony of "vinedressers" to southern Indiana, where they produced America's first commercial wines.

In the intellectual hamlet of Bloomington, it seems that every experience has an educational component. Everyone - from chefs to landscapers, bartenders to buskers - is a student by diploma or proximity in this college town that has blossomed into an off-the-radar cultural powerhouse. Few places offer more museums, stages, scenic strolls and great locavorian cuisine per square mile.

"We get our share of traveling Broadway shows, but IU's theater department and school of music put on top-ranked performances that outshine them," says native Bloomingtonian Carol McGarry, who lives near the campus and is more than happy to suggest cultural indulgences to a newcomer. "Jazz on Tuesdays, orchestra on Wednesdays, and any day off-campus, there are bands, the Bloomington Playwrights Project, Cardinal Stage Company." Oh, and Wednesday nights there's stargazing at Kirkwood Observatory, built in 1900.

With such abundance, McGarry says, "Students stay after graduation; parents who drop off students decide to move and retire here."

Heading past Kirkwood Avenue's shops, I pass through IU's gothic Sample Gates. The 2,000-acre campus inspired landscape artist Thomas Gaines to name it one of the country's five most beautiful in his book "The Campus as a Work of Art." Lamp-lined brick paths weave through lush woodlands and around buildings in styles including art deco and Romanesque revival. The architectural hodgepodge is unified by use of the area's famous limestone, quarried for such landmarks as the Empire State Building, Washington National Cathedral and the Pentagon.

Several campus buildings hold mind-tingling collections: ancient jewelry, puzzles, sexuality researchers' erotica. Free admission sweetens the deal.

"I.M. Pei designed this as the little sister of the National Gallery of Art's East Wing." Ed Maxedon is speed-talking through a tour of the IU Art Museum. Roman works of art "better than even those in the Vatican," free beat art nights, artist lectures. Maxedon calls attention to the sinewy masculinity Theodore Clement Steele distilled in his 1884 oil "The Boatman." The honorary IU professor painted commissioned portraits but preferred impressionist renderings of the Indiana landscapes he visited by "studio-wagon."

On the third floor of Morrison Hall, the hallways of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction display saucy artworks, some centuries old. Circa-1954 "physique photos" feature a nude young Jack LaLanne; the bodybuilder's "briefs" were painted on with scratch-off ink to skirt anti-pornography postal regulations.

Biologist Alfred Kinsey began studying gall wasps before being recruited to teach a marriage prep course, says administrative secretary Pat Lacy, sitting by a slightly risque button-covered mannequin. Unlike his gall wasp magnum opus, Kinsey's textbooks "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953) became bestsellers.

Off campus, walk in any direction for recreational education. At Upland Brewing Co., ensconced in a former printing plant, I meet the shiny 60-barrel fermenters "King" and "Kong," learn how Bad Elmer's Porter got its name and taste brews infused with local strawberries and persimmons.

Farm-to-table took root here before it became a movement. Breakfast at FARMbloomington easily turns into brunch with so many healthful local ingredients decadently prepared. Sous-chef Matt Gering bounds out with a bunch of Egyptian onions, pointing out items fresh-picked from his and chef-owner Daniel Orr's gardens. Orr's collectibles cover the walls: antique pitchforks, food-themed art, bedpans and eerie black mesh masks worn by Odd Fellows members during their 1930s occupation of this cavernous space.

At Lilly Library, "realia" abounds: a lock of George Washington's hair (light brown), cut at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention; Jack Kerouac's novelette "Before the Road" in Playboy's December 1959 issue; a 1700s cookbook with a notation about substituting cucumbers for mangoes.

On view in another Lilly gallery are several dozen of the 30,000 mechanical puzzles donated by collector Jerry Slocum. I'm baffled by Japanese trick boxes, a hidden-keyhole French padlock used to fool burglars, a pour-defying teapot, Chinese tangrams and a display with a magnifying glass revealing tiny texts, from the Lord's Prayer to picture books.

Between breakfast and brainteasers, I'm so full that when taking a townie's tip to try Laughing Planet's "best-ever burritos," I have room for just an Asian salad with a dreamy coconut-curry-peanut dressing and Bloomingtonian Joel Washington's trippy Frank Zappa portraits that seem to vibrate on the wall.

For a few days, I'm a student again, though one free from tuition, tests and keggers. Before leaving, I learn that there's a year-round hotel in the Indiana Memorial Union ("the world's largest student union building under one roof").

So next visit, I'm going for the full back-to-school experience.

Soslow is a Washington writer.

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