Wine editor Lettie Teague discovers modest, Gore-Tex-garbed winemakers and exceptional, underpriced wines on a tasting trip through Washington.

Americans are conditioned to think only in terms of the top. A silver medal isn't an acceptable goal (it won't get your face on a Wheaties box), and the job of vice president has never been considered a good career move (two words: Al Gore). And yet, some people seem to be quite happy in second place—most notably the winemakers of Washington State.

"We'll always be second to California," Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars said to me, sounding unaccountably cheerful. DeLille, a producer of Bordeaux-style reds based in suburban Seattle, was my first stop on a weeklong tour of the state. I knew Upchurch was talking in terms of volume, but he might have been referring to price. For even though Washington turns out some of the country's top wines, they're also some of the most affordable. While the state's largest winery, Columbia Crest, makes excellent Cabernets and Merlots for less than $15 a bottle, even boutique producers like Leonetti Cellar and Andrew Will Winery offer their much sought-after bottlings for about half the price of their California counterparts.

How do they do it? I wondered. Is Bill Gates funding new plantings with Microsoft money? Or are these winemakers simply less materialistic, content with smaller profits and correspondingly less fancy wardrobes? (They did seem to prefer Gore-Tex over Gucci.)

One reason could be the price of the land. "A planted acre of the best Washington State vineyard costs around $20,000," Upchurch said. (The Napa equivalent is easily six times that.) But it isn't the value of the land alone. "We know we could charge more for our wines, but we're comfortable being underpriced," Upchurch continued. Fellow suburban Seattle winemaker Dave Larsen, who makes ripe, elegant bottlings under the Soos Creek label (while working full-time as a Boeing engineer), said much the same thing: "I'm afraid of being overpriced." Soos Creek wines are great values at $20 to $35 each.

If anyone dared express this sentiment in Napa—let alone charge such prices—he'd be in danger of losing his winemaking license, not to mention his friends. But in Washington, being conservative turns out to be commonplace. Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek (whose 1998 Cabernet won an F&W American Wine Award as the best Cabernet over $20 last year) said customers have asked him why he hasn't raised his price above $75 a bottle. But Golitzin, a genial grandfather of five who once made wines in the garage, seems immune to the suggestion.

This attitude might be all well and good for small producers, I thought, but how well would such gestures go over at a corporation like Chateau Ste. Michelle? Surely the accountants for this million-case facility (whose tourist-friendly headquarters are a rare, Napa-esque sight) demand the best bottom line? "Actually, I think all of our wines are purposely underpriced," said Erik Olsen, who oversees Chateau Ste. Michelle's white wine production. "The company motto is to overdeliver."

We were tasting through Chateau Ste. Michelle's new releases, and I had to admit it wasn't an empty promise. One of my favorite American Sauvignon Blancs, year after year, is Chateau Ste. Michelle's incredibly tangy and crisp Horse Heaven Vineyard bottling ($14), as well as its rich, rounded Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay ($28) made with grapes from some of the property's oldest vines. We also tasted reds from the winery's Canoe Ridge Estate—Cabernet and Merlot, both reasonably priced and easy to obtain. Did Olsen ever aspire to make an expensive wine that everyone wanted and no one could find? (After all, scarcity is what gets collectors excited.) "It might be fun to have $50 wines out there," Olsen mused, as if naming some astronomical figure. Then he quickly recovered. "But I'd rather make wines that are available to everyone."

I wondered if I would encounter a similar earnestness in the eastern part of the state. Or was it just a Seattle thing? (My first morning in town, a Seattle policeman in a squad car pulled over to where I stood, one foot off the curb, and asked me, very politely, to "step up on the sidewalk" for my "personal safety.")

Almost all of Washington's vineyards are in the east—in Columbia Valley and the much smaller but rapidly developing appellations Red Mountain and Walla Walla. All are a fair distance from rainy Seattle (about four hours by car) and dramatically different in climate. Over the Cascades, the landscape turns practically desertlike, though extensive irrigation keeps it an important source for apples, cherries—and, of course, grapes.

I soon discovered that eastern Washington winemakers are even more earnest than their western colleagues (and even more devoted to Gore-Tex). At Columbia Crest, sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle, head winemaker Doug Gore made the creation of value-priced wine sound like a personal mission. "I like to make affordable wine, because I buy wine too," he said. Gore was quick to credit Columbia Valley's fruit and its warm, dry climate for his success: "What makes Washington unique is the consistent quality of our fruit and our good weather—we're like Bordeaux in a warm year." (I heard this comparison so many times on my trip that I began to wonder if Washington winemakers really thought of themselves as second to France, not California.)

The Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah that we tasted were all marked by the sweet fruit and soft tannins that would please most any wine drinker, at prices—around $11 a bottle—that would probably make a Napa producer file for bankruptcy. The Cabernet in particular was a remarkable deal; while hundreds of California wineries are turning out mediocre $50 and $60 wines, the Grand Estates bottling had good balance and striking varietal character.

The farther east I traveled, the more winemakers talked up their fruit. Indeed, the grapes, particularly Merlot and Cabernet, seemed to acquire almost mythical qualities. The winemakers extolled every one of the 1998 to 2002 vintages as a perfect, ripe year. At a certain point, I fully expected to hear a winemaker say he didn't even need to harvest his grapes—they simply fell off their vines at exactly the right time. The legendary Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla (home to some of the most hedonistic Merlots and Cabernets in the state, if not the country) made it sound like he was practically a bystander to his wines' creation: "All the components of a great wine are in abundance here—we can make wines with great fruit that also have incredible balance."

The winemakers I met lavished almost as much praise on their vineyards as they did on their grapes.

Because Washington's wine industry is still young, "old" vineyards can be barely into their teens. As a result, winemakers seem convinced there are plenty of prime sites yet to be discovered. "There could be a great Cabernet site under an apple orchard right now," said Clay MacKey of Chinook Wines, with unmistakable excitement.

Was ripe fruit the reason Washington winemakers sell first-rate wines at such reasonable prices? It's hard to believe; after all, there's terrific fruit in Napa, too. Cheaper land didn't seem like the reason either. Were such explanations a deflection, a ploy, on the part of people too humble to take credit for their work? Was it actually modesty that put Washington in second place?

And yet, with the prices they were charging, I wasn't complaining. After all, how often is humility the reason winemakers create wines that are so consistently great?