A while back I made a post comparing two Trader Joe's "VINTJS" line of pinot noir -- one from Willamette (usually a source of great pinot, but I did not lot like the TJs offering, despite being made by a well-respected source) and one from Santa Lucia (which seems to be an "up and comer" in the pinot world, and so far I haven't met a Santa Lucia pinot I didn't like); both of these were about $8, and while neither was amazing, the Santa Lucia one was quite drinkable and I was pretty pleased for the pricetag.
Well, I decided to explore a few more low-end offerings I saw at my local grocery store: one is made by Concannon and the other by Gnarly Head. The Gnarly Head was a buck more, but they were both under $10 where I live (though they may have been on sale, I don't remember.)
And they were both pretty good! Now, just to set the record straight, I'm not someone who likes "big" pinots -- I don't want my pinot to be dark and rich; if I were in the mood for that, I'd drink something other than pinot. So I much prefer it to be delicate, somewhat light-colored and transparent, and with a good balance of fruit and oak. I also love mineral, mushroomy earthiness when I can get that in a pinot, but these California pinots don't seem to do that as well as Oregon ones do. They do, however tend to have some level of toasted oak mixed with sour cherry and/or cranberry flavors, sometimes a little black tea or cola shows up in the profile as well (I find that's usually in the higher-end ones, though. There are some great -- but too expensive -- examples of these from Etude in Carneros)
Having said that, both the Concannon and Gnarly head were pretty well-balanced; the Concannon had a touch more alcohol heat and a little more of a sour profile to it (which my gf likes so we now have 4 of them sitting in the rack); the Gnarly Head is slightly more fruity/berry flavor, so I think I liked it just a little more, but at this point we just pick up whatever's a good deal.
These aren't going to hold par with many of the $40 Oregon, Carneros, Santa Lucia, and Sonoma Coast pinots (although I believe Gnarly Head actually is Sonoma Coast grapes), but for $10 or so (I believe I got them for $8 and $9) they do a respectable job of representing the varietal -- and I mention them here because they can probably be found all across America.