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Unfiltered: James Banks

James Banks oversees drinks at The Black Swan, Oldstead and Roots, York, while his brother, Tommy is head chef. He talks to Douglas Blyde about encountering his birth year Madeira, the Banks Brothers premium canned wine range, and their confusingly named pet sheep…

What is your vintage?

I was born and raised in Oldstead, a tiny village on the edge of the North York Moors in 1987 – where I still live today. It was unfortunately a pretty shocking vintage for many traditional wine regions, so I’ve always struggled to find a good wine from my birth year. However, I did stumble across a delicious Madeira recently which I’ve been enjoying – Cossart Gordon Bual 1987. Madeira is a bulletproof wine and this one is exceptional.


How does a wine earn its place on your list?

We taste everything blind, then once it passes our “is it delicious?” test, we look at whether that wine offers value for money, regardless of its cost. We also take into consideration who the producer is – we only want to work with people who share the same values and ethos as us.


Names some standout producers?

It’s important to me to develop great relationships with our producers, especially the small ones. I’ve loved working closely with Gordy and Nadia Newton-Johnson from South Africa. whose estate is the most stunning place I’ve ever been to. I also can’t forget the Palmer family from Charles Palmer vineyards in Winchelsea, East Sussex. We work incredibly closely to develop our own limited edition Black Swan wines with them.


What are you likely to be adding and subtracting?

That’s a tricky one, because our wine list is forever changing. We have new things coming and going from the list all the time. That’s what I think is 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.


What grape or style of wine could you happily do without?

I’m not a huge fan of Prosecco and I feel that there are so many more interesting sparkling wines out there – especially cool bottle-fermented sparkling wines that offer amazing value for money and are great quality. Like Crémant, or Cap Classique.


What has been a standout wine pairing with a dish by your brother and head chef, Tommy Banks?

Pairing drinks to our dishes is by far one of my favourite parts of the job. It’s amazing to see what Tommy and the team come up with and trying so many different grape varieties alongside. A standout recent pairing was our Banks Brothers Grenache Blanc No. 5 canned wine with barbecued lobster tail on the tasting menu. It fit perfectly with the buttery component of the lobster, but its herbal aromatics also lend itself well to the fennel and Jerusalem artichoke elements of the dish.


Tell me about the success of the canned wines and the ethos behind them?

I’ve always dreamt about working with amazing winemakers and one day having my own wine brand, and when I began discussing this with my brother, it made sense to both of us to go canned. We wanted to offer a more sustainable solution – and cans are certainly that. Plus, making smaller serves means they’re perfect for on-the-go, those moments when you just want to sip something good – or if you want just one drink without opening a whole bottle.


How much of the larder is sourced/foraged locally?

We’re so proud to grow our menus at The Black Swan and Roots at our two-acre restaurant garden just out the back with an abundance of produce, along with our farm where we grow larger scale crops (think Jerusalem artichoke, beetroot, and squash). We also forage in a sensible and sustainable way – there are so many ingredients out there on our doorstep.


How many covers are there at The Black Swan?

36 covers, and we open Wednesday – Sunday for dinner service, plus a lunch service on Saturday, too.

Is it still a pub with ale on draught or is it very definitely a restaurant?

Unfortunately, we don’t have ale on draught anymore, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have great beer – and we sell some fantastic beers we’ve made using our own ingredients in collaboration with local breweries. Our Lemon Verbena Pale Ale is made in collaboration with Bad Co. Brewery in Dishforth. For it, we infused lemon verbena leaves from our garden with Mosaic and Summit hops and the result is a beautiful zesty, citrusy, 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 foraged from local woodlands. This lager is crisp and refreshing with subtle grassy notes. Don’t get me wrong though, you still can’t beat a great pint of Landlord on draught.


Do you look after the drinks selection in the guest rooms?

Yes, now that we have a (nearly 12) can range of wines with Banks Brothers, these are all available to enjoy from the comfort of our rooms at The Black Swan. It’s a great option as a 250ml can is the perfect serve of two, 125ml glasses. A great nightcap.


Who has been your mentor?

Probably Richard Kelley from Dreyfus Ashby wines who is a good friend of mine and has always been hugely helpful in my quest for innovation with our wine menu.


What is your favourite cocktail?

I absolutely love a Manhattan, and we’ve done many different variations over the years. My favourite probably being when we infused fig leaf into bourbon, giving a wonderful coconut-like flavour.


Vodka, gin or sambuca?



Tell us something surprising about yourself?

We have two pet sheep called Jonathan and Lola – and they’re both girls.


What is your favourite band and is it played at The Black Swan?

Probably Oasis – and they definitely feature on our restaurant playlist.


What guest habit annoys you?

When guests click their fingers to get an employee’s attention.


Who isn’t welcome at The Black Swan?

Donald Trump.


Who should prospective candidates contact if they want to join your team, and what attributes in them do you seek?

We’re always looking for ambitious and hardworking individuals to join our team and welcome everyone with all levels of experience to contact us, by sending their CV to For me, a great team member is someone with a great work ethic and is passionate and excited about what we do.

The Black Swan – Oldstead, York, YO61 4BL; 01347 868387;

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