Otherwise known as a Denomination of Origin in English or DO for short in both languages, this is a legal concept built to defend traditional food products on the global market. The idea is simple: Allow the creators of traditional food products to lay claim to a name and variety of other factors that make their products unique. Think Parmeggiano, Champagne, tequila, or mezcal. But, as with everything else in life, the devil is in the details. The implementation of DOs determines whether they are successful at their stated goal of defending traditional products and there is a constant tension between preserving traditional production and marketing those products. There is also a meta question of whether DOs are counterproductive in a productive sense.
The idea is a noble one: In this globalized world culinary traditions have local roots. In order to keep copy cats from destroying local economies and in order to guarantee that customers are actually buying what they think they’re buying, create a law that defines these traditions and their names. The Parmeggiano DO defines exactly where this cheese can be made along with definitions of how it has to be made (it has to be aged at least 12 months, can’t use any ingredients other than sea salt, milk, and rennet, etc). This means that when you buy a chunk of Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese, you’re getting the product of hundreds of years of traditions and paying a premium to keep all those Italians working away to maintain those traditions. At least that’s the marketing gloss. While Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese may be made that way, many things have changed – like its workforce – that reflect globalization.
The reality of Parmeggiano and DOs in general is much more complicated by the spectrum of international law and the very nature of DOs. If you’re in the United States and many other countries whenever you buy parmesan cheese it’s probably not made in Italy at all because many countries haven’t signed a trade agreement with the European Union recognizing that DO. That’s why Kraft Cheese sells tons of cheese labeled “parmesan” but you wouldn’t know the difference unless you read the packaging really closely. Occasionally a DO has much better success: There used to be California Champagnes, today there are Californian sparkling wines because the Champagne industry won a long campaign
Tequila and mezcal are two of the many DOs in Mexico designed to do the same thing. Both are products with centuries of tradition. Both support enormous numbers of people involved in the farming of agave and its transformation into spirits. And both DOs claim that they have been enormously effective in representing their industries on the international market. Today tequila is one of the most consumed spirits globally and the key ingredient of the most popular cocktail. Mezcal has been growing at an incredible clip as well. But both are commonly held up as the antithesis of what a DO should be.
Sarah Bowen wrote an entire book about this topic called Divided Spirits while others like Clayton Szczech are writing dissertations on it. The crux of the criticism of these particular DOs is that they appear to be marketing and promotion organizations instead of guardians of traditions with the interests of their many small producers in mind. They have clearly favored larger producers and tequila has industrialized to a dramatic extent.
One simple way of understanding the criticisms of these DOs is to look at their geographic scopes. Most people would like that a DO cover a small area where something like a special local cheese has been made the same way for some time. And, most DOs are small, some to an almost ridiculous extent, covering a valley or plain with clear geographic boundaries. The people that lived in those spaces gradually honed a very specific product based on all the things that made it unique like the soil, weather, local plants, and human culture. The tequila and mezcal denominations vie for largest geographic denominations in the world, and they’re winning by a lot.
Tequila can be made in four states in western Mexico which, in itself, is a vast territory of vastly different landscapes, cultures, and climates. But it can also be made in the state of Tamaulipas completely across the country. Mezcal can be made in nine states at last count that share an even greater diversity of geographic distribution. It is the largest denomination on the planet which has prompted many to ask what traditional production method, what culture, what climate, etc unites all these very divergent areas. To turn that around, there are many (hundreds? thousands?) of distinctive local mezcal producing traditions in Mexico. Very few of them have been recognized with a denomination that describes just how specific they are and the larger mezcal denomination doesn’t appear to have much interest in that question.
And then there are changes in the rules governing these DOs. Since their establishment Mezcal and Tequila have arguably seen the most changes of any DOs in critical definitional elements. In contrast to what we know about tequila’s history, the DO now restricts which agaves can be used to make it and allows for almost half of a bottle to be made up by something else. Mezcal now permits additives, restricts chemicals produced by traditional distillation techniques, and permits industrial production. While the DO governing tequila, the CRT, has been a relative model of stability, the DO governing mezcal has been marked by instability with dramatic legal and governance changes which, at last count in the spring of 2022, features a situation where there are five different certification bodies fighting for authority to call something mezcal.
All this confusion has left ample space for others to jump in. The most exciting thing in mezcal today isn’t even called that. The latest trend is to abjure certification by the mezcal DO altogether and call yourself an agave spirit which allows makers to do things according to their tradition or innovation. They focus on the spirit, not the rules, and appear to be resonating with audiences throughout the world. Meanwhile in the tequila world an independent organization now works to certify additive free tequilas so that the makers can distinguish themselves and consumers know what they’re getting. Both of these changes point to a larger question about DOs and one that is especially important in Mexico: The question of who owns the name. The country of Mexico legally owns the names “tequila” and “mezcal” – that is the basis for the respective denominations. But the people of Mexico have used those terms to refer to what they make as well. They’ve been calling their spirits by those names for quite some time without having to ask for anyone’s approval. What about them and their attachment to tradition? These are always massive issues for any DO because they determine cultural legitimacy and potential paths to economic bonanzas.