July 12, 2023
A prior commitment put me behind the clock and provided a quasi-legitimate excuse for rolling into Steinbeck Vineyards a day late, joining a group of good friends on a hunt for blacktails among the rolling hills of grape vines just outside Paso Robles, California.
My delayed arrival gave the hunters— Jeff, Gordy, and Linda—most of the first day to get the lay of the land, but, I hoped, not tag out. God and Southwest Airlines willing,I’d arrive at the vineyards in late afternoon, giving me just enough time to get through most of a bottle of Steinbeck’s famed wine before my friends met me for dinner.
Ryan Newkirk, operations manager for Steinbeck Vineyards, and our guide for the week, had other plans. Jeff had tagged out that morning and Gordy had just missed a good buck. Apparently, that put me next in line on the trigger. Within minutes of arriving at the lodge, I was at the ranch’s range confirming the zero on my Mossberg Patriot. With a few hours of late-summer sunlight left, Newkirk thought there was a chance to get me on a deer that evening. I realized this deer hunt was really going to cut into my drinking.
A SLOW TOUR
This trip would combine three of my favorite things—hunting, eating and drinking. I’d heard rumors the meat of these California coastal blacktails came virtually pre-marinated, as they spend their days munching on the many varietals of grapes grown on the vineyards. I was anxious to sample such a unique pairing of fresh venison and vintage wine.
Steinbeck is a bit unique in that they don’t deer-proof their 600-acre vineyard. Instead of fencing the deer out, like most of the neighboring grape farms, the Steinbeck family takes a holistic, sustainable approach. Though they do lose a substantial portion of their grapes to deer depredation, the trade-off is the opportunity to hunt deer on their property. The income produced from guiding a small group of hunters every year helps offset some of the loss of income. But really, Newkirk, and his grandfather/vineyard owner Howie Steinbeck, just really like to hunt.
Lucky for me, the Steinbeck family also enjoys sharing that opportunity with others, so we all piled into Newkirk’s Ford and started making laps around the various rows of vines that cover the rolling hills of the property. If you’re not from the West, you might look down your nose at hunting from a truck, but it’s really the only way to cover that ground. With thousands of rows of vines, there are a lot of places for deer to hide, and they disappear instantly in the shadows of leaves of thousands of grape vines. The rows are narrow, too, and the deer can step into the next row before you even have a chance to spot them.
You also might think you can cover a section-sized property quickly in a truck, but the deer’s sneaky nature and ability to hide anywhere means we had to creep along at a slow pace. Steinbeck sits among rolling folds of hills, so any elevation helps, and we often stopped upon the few high spots to pick apart the rows. And because the vineyard rolls out the welcome mat for deer, there are hundreds of them on the property, but they disappear as quickly as they appear. Before the sun finally set, we had spotted a lot of deer, but no bucks worth making a stalk on.
Anticipating the arrival of a group of hungry hunters, my good friend Brooks Hansen, who also happens to work for Camp Chef, laid out a luscious spread of appetizers that we made quick work of. There were also several varietals and vintages of Steinbeck wine uncorked, and vineyard manager Cindy Steinbeck gave us detailed descriptions of each. We swirled and sniffed our glasses as if we were true wine connoisseurs.
DEEP IN THE VINES
The next morning it took a while for the fog to lift—literal moisture in the air, not the slow-headedness caused by the many now-empty bottles of wine that littered the patio table. That brain fog would take a few more hours to clear, and by then we’d cruised the property a couple times. We found a few decent bucks early in our rounds, but Ryan was sure there were better on the property. One particular buck had gnarled old antlers, but he looked to be just a 3x3, and we were hoping to find one of the few classic-framed, and exceedingly rare, 4x4 blacktails that Ryan had seen during his pre-hunt scouting trips.
A small copse of oak trees rose in the middle of one of the blocks of vines, and in its shade, we could see the tines rising above the cover. Three or four bucks had bedded in there, but any shot was impossible. Though the distance was manageable for the 6.5 PRC I was toting, the thick cover was not. There was also no feasible approach as the bucks were on alert, and the rows of vines impossible to penetrate effectively.
Newkirk had a plan. He’d leave me high on the hill where I could see the bedded deer and take Gordy and the rest of the group to the other side. The deer drive presented low odds that either of us would get a shot, but it was a break from the mental grind of the slow cruise around the vineyard. And still, there was a chance the bucks could cross the trail near me.
It was a small chance that turned into no chance. The bucks quickly figured out they were being hunted and slipped unseen through the rows of grapes. Newkirk’s drive did push some smaller bucks and many does past me, and it was an educational experience to see how they used the combination of cover, shade and elevation to parse their way from the pressure of the hunters.
The bucks seemed to like a particular block of vines, whether because of its ample shade or they were just tuned to that particular varietal of grapes. Ryan insisted that certain deer liked certain types of grapes, and as the fruit ripened they’d move through different rows to find their preferred variety. We spent much of that second afternoon circling that same block, and soon spotted a very good buck, running with a smaller friend.
Newkirk recognized the buck as the one that had slipped through their fingers the day before, and I insisted Gordy get another opportunity at it. Ever the gentleman, Gordy was adamant it was still my turn, so Newkirk and I slipped from the truck and crept down an open row just a few lines over from where the deer were feeding. When he dropped to one knee, I followed him down and soon picked a light brown spot from the surrounding tangle of vines, leaves, and grapes.
The two bucks were less than 50 yards away. Newkirk assured me the bigger buck was on the left, but as I swung the crosshairs over, I noticed the smaller buck had spotted us. There was enough cover to mask our movement, but it knew something was off. A second before I could sort the front shoulder of the buck from the surrounding tangle of vines, both deer stepped into the next row and disappeared. It was a game of inches that lasted a matter of seconds.
Under the earlier pressure, the bucks hadn’t left this block, but after we circled in the truck, we weren’t able to find them again. That doesn’t mean they had left—the vines and shadows provide so much cover they could be 50 yards from us and we wouldn’t know—but Newkirk decided we had better move on, hoping to catch them, or another buck, on the move as the sun switched the shadows to the other side of the vines.
An hour or so later, we spotted two bucks on a distant hillside, one of which looked just like our target buck from earlier. The deer were in a good position to spot us too, so we carefully stalked as close as possible, which ended up being not very close. Newkirk set the sticks at 175 yards out, not an easy shot standing, made even more difficult as I had to wait for the bigger of the two bucks to separate from the surrounding vines. By the time it finally did, my confidence shook along with the crosshairs, and I sent an errant round just over the deer’s back.
My miss gave Gordy a second chance at the buck, which we found again just before sundown. Gordy crept within range of the bedded buck, and once he stood, put a single Hornady CX copper bullet through its chest. As we shot photos in the fading light, I got to admire the size of the mature blacktail up close. And though I was chuffed at missing my chance at such a fine buck, having my friend get redemption with a perfect shot at the same deer, made the wine go down easier later that night.
Both types of fog were thick again on the third day, and it took a little longer for them to clear. It was mid-morning before we started our rounds, but soon we spotted the deer we were looking for. I’m always a sucker for the strange, and, after my drunken request made the night before, Newkirk agreed to put me on the gnarly buck we had passed the day before. But finding the buck and getting a shot on it was a different matter. The deer were already on the move, heading to their bed among the vines. After two busted stalks, the buck finally disappeared, putting us back behind the windshield as we searched the entire vineyard for it or another mature coastal blacktail.
After a few laps around the vines, we made our way back to the eastern end of the ranch, across a deep ravine from where we’d lost the buck earlier that day. As we turned a corner surrounding an older block of cabernet vines, we spotted the deer bedded a few hundred yards up a hill. Laying in the shade, the deer now seemed unconcerned with the white truck that had been circling it all morning. That gave me the opportunity to slip from the passenger’s seat and sneak into a sitting position with the rifle solidly locked into the shooting sticks for an accurate shot.
Walking up on the buck, we realized, his dark horns weren’t just gnarled. They were also still hung with strips of frayed velvet. We were also surprised to find a main frame that held four points on each side, instead of the 3x3 as we had first thought. The front right fork formed into a crab claw and the back left had been damaged in velvet. He was the kind of battle-worn old buck I was proud to hang my tag on, and one worthy of pairing with a 2016 bottle of The Voice, Steinbeck’s signature sirah-sauvignon blend which Cindy Steinbeck presented to me back at the skinning shed.
Considering the current economy, it’s hard to still find a good deal. But Mossberg delivers on that value promise with their Patriot series of rifles. I’ve used the original Patriot on everything from Coues deer to aoudad, but for this hunt I opted for the new(er) Long Range model in 6.5 PRC. While the shots at Steinbeck weren’t especially long, I still appreciated the accuracy delivered by the button-rifled, fluted barrel and tuned action that’s been pillar-bedded into the distinctive Monte Carlo stock. The user-adjustable trigger was factory tuned to 21⁄2 pounds, and broke crisp thanks to the blade-style design.
I stuffed the Patriot with Hornady’s Outfitter ammunition, which features their new CX bullet. California limits hunters to using non-toxic ammo, but that’s not a sacrifice when you consider the CX’s lineage. It’s the newest version of the proven GMX, featuring a monolithic copper-alloy construction topped with a polymer, heat-shielding tip that initiates reliable expansion, while retaining nearly 100% of its original weight for deep penetration.