James Banks oversees drinks at Black Swan, Oldstead and Roots, York, while his brother Tommy is the head chef. He talks to Douglas Blyde about meeting his Madeira birth year, the Banks Brothers range of premium canned wines and their confusingly named pet sheep…
What is your vintage?
I was born and raised in Oldstead, a small village on the edge of the North York Moors in 1987 – where I still live today. It was unfortunately quite a shocking vintage for many traditional wine regions, so I always struggled to find a good wine from my year of birth. However, I recently came across a delicious Madeira that I enjoyed – Cossart Gordon Bual 1987. Madeira is a foolproof wine and this one is outstanding.
How does a wine deserve its place on your menu?
We taste everything blind, then once past our “is it delicious?” test, we look at whether this wine offers good value for money, whatever its cost. We also take into consideration who the producer is – we only want to work with people who share the same values and philosophy as us.
Name a few standout producers?
It is important for me to develop good relations with our producers, especially the small ones. I loved working closely with Gordy and Nadia Newton-Johnson from South Africa. whose estate is the most magnificent place I know. Nor can I forget the Palmer family of Charles Palmer Vineyards in Winchelsea, East Sussex. We work closely together to develop our own limited edition Black Swan wines with them.
What are you likely to add and subtract?
It’s tricky, because our wine list is constantly changing. We have new things coming and going from the list all the time. That’s what I find so special about the lists we create: we want to be dynamic, forward-thinking and constantly evolving when it comes to our drinks. We never restrict ourselves.
Which grape variety or style of wine could you do without?
I’m not a big fan of Prosecco and I feel like there are so many more great sparkling wines out there – especially bottle-fermented fresh sparkling wines which offer incredible value for money and are of great quality . Like Crémant, or Cap Classique.
What was the most notable wine pairing with a dish from your brother and chef, Tommy Banks?
Pairing drinks with our dishes is by far one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s amazing to see what Tommy and the team offer and to try so many different varietals. A notable recent pairing was our Banks Brothers Grenache Blanc No. 5 Canned Wine with Grilled Lobster Tail on the tasting menu. It pairs perfectly with the buttery component of lobster, but its aromatic herbs also lend themselves well to the fennel and Jerusalem artichoke elements of the dish.
Tell me about the success of canned wines and the philosophy behind them?
I’ve always dreamed of working with amazing winemakers and one day having my own brand of wine, and when I started discussing it with my brother, it made sense for both of us to go canned. We wanted to offer a more sustainable solution – and cans are certainly that. Plus, making smaller portions means they’re great for on the go, those times when you just want to sip something good – or just want a drink without opening a whole bottle.
How much of the pantry is sourced/foraged locally?
We’re so proud to grow our menus at Black Swan and Roots in our two-acre restaurant garden just out the back with an abundance of produce, as well as our farm where we grow larger-scale crops (think Jerusalem artichoke, with beets and mash). We also drill sensibly and sustainably – there are so many ingredients right on our doorstep.
How many covers are there on The Black Swan?
36 covers, and we are open from Wednesday to Sunday for dinner service, plus a lunch service on Saturday as well.
Is it still a pub with draft beer or is it really a restaurant?
Unfortunately we’re out of draft beer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have great beer – and we do sell some fantastic beers that we’ve made from our own ingredients in conjunction with local breweries. Our Lemon Verbena Pale Ale is made in conjunction with Bad Co. Brewery in Dishforth. For this we infused lemon verbena leaves from our garden with Mosaic and Summit hops and the result is a lovely zesty, lemony and hoppy beer. We also have our Master of the Woods lager, made in collaboration with Treboom Brewery in Shipton-by-Beninbrough. It’s a Kolsch-style lager that’s infused with sweet woodruff leaves and flowers that we picked from the local woods. This lager is crisp and refreshing with subtle herbal notes. Don’t get me wrong, you still can’t beat a good pint of Landlord on tap.
Do you take care of the drink selection in the rooms?
Yes, now that we have a range of wines (almost 12) with Banks Brothers, they are all available from the comfort of our rooms at The Black Swan. This is a great option because a 250ml can is the perfect portion of two 125ml glasses. A good last drink.
Who has been your mentor?
Probably Richard Kelley of Dreyfus Ashby Wines who is a good friend of mine and has always been a great help in my pursuit of innovation with our wine list.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
I love a Manhattan, and we’ve done many different variations over the years. My favorite probably being when we infused fig leaf into bourbon, giving a wonderful coconut flavor.
Vodka, gin or sambuca?
Tell us something surprising about you?
We have two pet sheep named Jonathan and Lola – and they are both girls.
What is your favorite band and do they play at the Black Swan?
Probably Oasis – and they are definitely on our restaurant playlist.
What guest habit annoys you?
When guests snap their fingers to get an employee’s attention.
Who’s not welcome at the Black Swan?
Who should potential candidates go to if they want to join your team, and what qualities are you looking for in them?
We are always on the lookout for ambitious and hardworking people to join our team and welcome anyone of all levels of experience to contact us, sending their CV to [email protected] For me, a great team member is someone who has a great work ethic and is passionate and excited about what we do.
The Black Swan – Oldstead, York, YO61 4BL; 01347 868387; [email protected]; blackswanoldstead.co.uk