James Banks heads up the drinks section at Michelin-starred The Black Swan in Oldstead and the recently opened Roots in York. Having grown up on the family farm, Banks, alongside his celebrity chef brother Tommy, puts farm-to-fork as well as farm-to-bottle at the heart of proceedings. Setting himself the goal of not stocking any big spirits brands at either of his restaurants, Banks has set about creating his own bespoke creations alongside local distillery Cooper King. With a passion for cask beer, Banks later got into wine and currently champions homegrown producers such as Laurel Vines, Gusbourne and Charles Palmer on his list.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
Thirteen years ago when we first opened The Black Swan my main passion was actually for serving cask beer. At the time we served nice simple pub food and I loved keeping a proper old-fashioned cellar. As we gradually refined our menu, wine became a much bigger part of the business, I started to taste more and eventually got hooked.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I like variety and I am very lucky to have a role where I can enjoy different jobs every day. Being involved with the restaurant, bar and wine service in both our restaurants is a focus, but it is also great fun to develop new products and spend time growing produce at our farm and garden.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
I often avoid using the title ‘sommelier’ to be honest. I get the impression that many guests see the ‘somm’ as pretentious and possibly even feel intimidated by him/her. I know some amazing people who serve wine in a subtle, informative and down-to-earth manner and couldn’t be further from this stereotype. I’d just question if using a ‘fancy French word’ to describe ourselves is always helpful.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
A really cold lager
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
There are so many which usually involving me dropping or spilling things….
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a sommelier, what would it be?
Make your own opinions rather than following others.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
It was a 25-year-old bottle of Francois Cotat Sancerre. It was so complex, I tasted something different in every sip, I couldn’t believe how something so old could still be so fresh.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
Visiting South Africa – an amazing experience that should be towards the top of every wine lovers list.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
Guests who assume that young waiters/waitresses are in the industry short-term before getting a ‘proper’ job. We are lucky to employ some fantastically dedicated front-of-house professionals who take their careers in hospitality very seriously. It makes me really sad that some customers don’t understand that front-of-house can be seen as a valid long term career.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
Fish and chips (in paper from the chippy) with old white Rioja like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1987.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Oldstead, North Yorkshire – my home! A few more years of global warming and it might even be possible…
Which wine do you find it impossible to get along with?
I am keen to try everything with an open mind, but usually struggle to enjoy Pinotage.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
I’d be a farmer. I grew up on the family farm where we now grow veg, herbs and fruit for our restaurants.