hill towered over the land, and at its peak a lone oak loomed like a sentry. The tree provided an escape from the punishing sun, and the hill gave us a vantage of the grounds below where blacktail deer were also seeking shade. Their shelter, though, came from a different source: the edges of 4,000 rows of grapevines across 620 acres of central California wine country. We glassed up and down the vines for antlers, tails, and any hint of movement. As if the setting hadn’t already made it clear that this was not a typical hunt, my guide, Ryan Newkirk, sealed the deal when he shared a quirk about these deer. “They love merlot,” he said. His tone was so matter-of-fact that I needed a second to register the out-of-nowhere observation. It’s not every day you hear someone equate your quarry with an oenophile. “Wait, what?” Newkirk, who runs this family-owned vineyard with his grandfather, Howie Steinbeck, explained his theory: They have only 21 acres of merlot grapes on the property compared to 320 acres of cabernet sauvignon, but Newkirk said he sees just as many deer feeding in the merlot patches as in the cab-sav vines. By the time he finished, he was downright enthusiastic, as if he’d just reconvinced himself of the deer’s preference for easy-drinking reds. “These deer really love merlot!” There was a plot of merlot vines just below us, and since we couldn’t spy any deer from the oak hill, we decided to drop down to their level. Heat wave be damned.