Think fast: which state leads the U.S.’s wine production? California probably quickly comes to mind, but do you know the runner up? Maybe that’s not so easy. The State of Washington is the less-obvious answer to that question.

Washington just licensed its 500th winery last month, and has 20 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) with the most notable ones like Yakima Valley, Walla Walla and Columbia Valley located on the state’s eastern edge. In contrast to the rainy climate of Seattle on the western coast, this area is very arid and actually enjoys more average hours of summer sunlight than California during the prime growing season. Consistently warm, dry days allow the grapes to ripen fully while cool nights keep fruit acids high, creating rich, flavorful, well-balanced wines.

About 20 varietals are grown successfully in the state, with the most notable being Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. And even though Washington turns out some of the country’s top wines, they’re also some of the most affordable. The state’s largest winery, Columbia Crest, makes excellent Cabernets and Merlots for less than $15 a bottle, and 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.

In 2006, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate – one of the most prestigious wine publications in the world – gave 100-points to Quilceda Creek winery’s 2002 and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. Quilceda Creek, a small family-owned winery, became the first Washington winery to earn this status, and one of only five in history to be given 100-points for consecutive vintages.

Washington’s wine industry is still quite young, with plenty of potentially-great land still available so this will be an exciting region to keep an eye on. The best may be yet to come.

And if you’d like to taste some of these great wines and judge how they stack-up with California, check out our May 30 Wine Down Wednesday, “West Coast Showdown: California vs. Washington.”

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