Uncorked: James Banks

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

James Banks The Black Swan wine

Related tags: James Banks, Tommy Banks, The Black Swan at Oldstead, Sommelier, Wine, Uncorked, Roots York

The co-owner of The Black Swan at Oldstead and Roots York on his unusually flexible wine offer and his policy of training his entire front of house team to recommend and serve wine.

Tell us about the moment you first became interested in wine...

I used to be really into beer. When The Black Swan was a local pub I stocked a lot of cask ales back. But as we moved into turning the pub into a fine dining experience I began naturally progressing into finding wine pairings for the great food we were producing. Pairing wine with food is what really get me interested in wine.

Tell us about your wine lists at The Black Swan at Oldstead and Roots York

It’s particularly imperative to me that we try and use small producers with a similar ethos to us. Sustainability is so important to us. I’m really fortunate that I’ve met most of the producers that we work with. I think what sets our wine list apart is that we sell every single wine by the glass thanks to the Coravin system. We know this is pretty rare, but we really want guests to be able to try special wines without committing to an entire bottle if they’d like. Although the majority of our guests order the pairing, we try to offer flexibility to ‘make your own’ package this way. We’ve also recently launched Banks Brothers - selling canned wine from small-scale producers all over the world. These are available to order online but we’ll also be pairing the cans with the food at both of the restaurants soon.

Over the course of your career, have you had any wine-related disasters?

I still get flashbacks to the opening night of the Black Swan back on 1 August 2006. We were so busy and I opened a bottle of wine and the cork flew off and hit a lady in the head. Thankfully she was fine, and we laughed about it. I promise my serving skills have come along way since then. 

Name your top three restaurant wine lists

I’d say Noble Rot, there by glass options are great. Hide has a great experience where you order on an iPad from Hedonism wine shop down the road and they bring it to the restaurant for you. Finally, I love the long list at Holborn Dining Room. Callum Franklin produces such brilliant food and you can always find something special on that list.

Who do you most respect in the wine world?

One of my very good friends Richard Kelley, who owns Dreyfus Ashby wines. He helped me design the wine lists at our restaurants and I work incredibly closely with him to bring some incredible wines to the UK.

What’s the most interesting wine you’ve ever come across?

François Cotat, Les Monts Damnés Sancerre 1995, which we’ve previously listed at the Black Swan. It’s a very, very old and unique wine.

What are the three most overused tasting notes?

It’s difficult to say because I do sometimes think a lot of tasting notes are overused. I find that flavour and aroma are very subjective to an individual – what’s most important to me is the narrative of a wine. I’ll always try to steer a guest towards a wine that has an interesting story and anecdote behind it. In my opinion, that makes the wine drinking experience far more memorable.

What’s the best value wine on your list at the moment?

Monastrell, Parajes del Valle 2020 (from Murcia in South Eastern Spain). We imported this ourselves and there isn’t anyone else in the UK selling it. The magic of these wines comes from the hand of Maria Jover, a 28-year-old winemaker that has transferred her modern view in wine making to these wines – they’re really wonderful.

What is your ultimate food and drink match?

Fish and chips with grand reserva white Rioja. 

Old World or New World?

Depends what mood I’m in.

What is your pet hate when it comes to wine service in other restaurants?

The sommelier coming over and talking at you for ages about what the wine tastes of. Like I said, I think it’s subjective.

Who is your favourite producer at the moment and why?

Domaine de Trevallon at this moment because I’ve only just discovered them.

At your restaurants, what question do you most get asked by customers?

“Do the team get to try the wine?” Customers are always really impressed that every single team member has tried everything and know so much about it too. At the restaurants, we don’t have a dedicated sommelier – we’re breaking down traditional service standards and instead equipping all our team with the knowledge.

Which wine producing region or country is currently underrated at the moment? 

South Africa – absolutely amazing wines. There is a huge misconception that South Africa makes bulk, cheap wine but there’s a younger generation of people doing amazing things in the wine scene there right now.

It’s your last meal and you can have a bottle of any wine in the world. What is it and why?

Cartology by Chris Alheit. Genuinely fantastic wine which I have enjoyed on several occasions.

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