The warm days of early November –- known as Indian summer in the United States –- are called “l’estate di San Martino” (the summer of St. Martin) in Italy. Wine producers celebrate the  saint’s feast on November 11 by uncorking the vino novello (new wine) from the recent vendemmia (grape harvest) and getting the first preview of the year’s vintage. As an Italian saying puts it, “Per San Martino, cadono le foglie e si spilla il vino.” (For St. Martin, the leaves fall, and the wine is tapped.)

A few seasons ago my husband and I visited several wineries to find out more about the passion of Italy’s winemakers. At the NostraVita winery in Montalcino in the gorgeous Val d’Orcia, we spent a day with Annibale Parisi, a true Renaissance man. A chemist by training, he has expressed his artistic passions in paintings, collages, sculptures, pipes of wood and cork, and entire rooms of furniture. In his home library, a sculpted wooden “tree” covers a wall with branches holding hand-carved “books” that open—like Joseph Cornell boxes—to reveal leaves, nuts, seeds, nests, and bark from particular trees.

For each of the 5,000 bottles of Brunello wines that NostraVita produces every year, Annibale  hand-paints a unique label. As I watched, he grasped a brush to create an abstract image in four symbolic colors, explaining the meaning of each as he painted: ruddy brown, for the earth; black, for working and “getting your hands dirty”; shimmering white, for the illumination of the sun; and deep red, for passion. And this, he reminds me, regardless of what one makes, is always the most crucial element of all.

We arrived at Poggio Grande  in nearby San Quirico d’Orcia  just as bunches  of freshly picked grapes were going through the first steps of sorting, trimming of stems, and maceration. “We do everything by hand,” said Giulitta Zamperini, the fourth generation of her family to make wines.  She offered us a special treat: glasses of must, the grape juice that will eventually be  transformed into wine, straight from the vat.

At Le Chiuse, an azienda agricola (an estate that grows grapes and produces its own wine) in Montalcino, another family–-Nicolo’ Magnelli, his wife Simonetta and their son Lorenzo–-balances innovation with tradition, including long soaks before and after fermentation in stainless steel vats. The aging process for its signature Brunello continues in barrels for three years until the wine is ready to be poured into bottles and sealed with corks.

At Monte Vibiano Vecchio (above) in Umbria, where my husband and I own a single vine in Vigna Lorenzo, a vineyard that dates back almost 3000 years, I asked my friend Maria Camilla Fasola Bologna what she tastes when she takes a sip of the first vintage:

“With this wine, you know you are drinking a nectar, and inside that nectar is the work of all the people involved in making the wine. There is history. There is tradition. There is love for life, for this beautiful place — a love so deep that it becomes a passion.”

Dianne Hales is the author of  LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World, LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.