A Santa Barbara County vintner is dead, and authorities, including the FBI, are still trying to figure out why.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 20, the body of Christopher Marks, 60, was found by a dog walker on a Santa Barbara beach below the cliffs of the popular Shoreline Park. Marks was an attorney and investment adviser with offices in Los Angeles. He also owned Sweeney Canyon Vineyard, which his family planted in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1980. At first, there were no signs of foul play, so the death was ruled accidental, likely the result of a fall.
But when Marks’ autopsy came back with “suspicious” results—meaning that it was possibly the result of either suicide or foul play—the Santa Barbara Police Department went back to the beach on Sept. 27 and began combing the sands and cliffside in search of more evidence. On Oct. 3, the FBI joined the investigation. A 12-person FBI dive team spent that entire day searching for clues underwater while another team of agents scoured the grass on the cliffs above.
Hundreds of people attended Marks’ memorial service on Sept. 29 in Santa Barbara, where he was remembered as a loving father of five who lived life to the fullest. A Long Beach native and University of Notre Dame law school graduate, he was also an active member of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, where he began volunteering 20 years ago, and the Santa Ynez chapter of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international gastronomic society.
Though his family was one of the first to tap the grapegrowing potential of the Sta. Rita Hills when they planted there 32 years ago, Marks and his wife, Kristi, became more actively involved with the 18.5-acre vineyard when they moved to the area in 1996. He eventually became vineyard manager, and when the family released the first wines under the Sweeney Canyon Vineyard label in 2006, Kristi was listed as the winemaker. The small annual production of 500 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir won awards at regional competitions over the years. Perhaps more notably, the vineyard was tapped by producers such as Brewer-Clifton, which made a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the property.
On Oct. 5, police spokesman Sgt. Riley Harwood said the department was “satisfied” with the search. He wouldn’t expand on whether any evidence had been found, but also said that the authorities were still trying to determine why Marks was in that part of Santa Barbara the night of Sept. 19. There has been no confirmation on whether the incident is being treated as a homicide, suicide, or something else.
With reporting by Tyler Hayden.
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